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GOP Outnumbered in Senate, but McConnell Tries to Ensure It Is Not Outflanked

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By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 22, 2009

When he was fighting campaign finance reform a decade ago, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was dubbed Darth Vader by his critics. He embraced the nickname, even announcing "Darth Vader has arrived" at a news conference.

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The bill eventually passed, but McConnell continued to cultivate an unusual profile on Capitol Hill, a man who rose through the Republican leadership ranks by drawing little attention to himself except to push unpopular causes. When his Senate GOP colleagues named McConnell minority leader in 2006, one of the virtues Republicans offered was that McConnell would never use the job to position himself for a White House run, as his predecessor, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), was accused of doing.

Left unspoken was that the uncharismatic McConnell would probably not be a viable presidential contender.

But with Republicans out of the White House and badly outnumbered in Congress, the senator from Kentucky is shifting his role from behind-the-scenes fixer to party leader. He has raised his public profile, appearing on more Sunday-morning television talk shows than almost any other member of Congress. He has cast himself as a man willing to work with President Obama when they agree on issues, although Democrats say they don't much see evidence of his bipartisanship.

And while other Republicans attack Obama on nearly every issue, McConnell has persuaded his Senate colleagues to pick targeted, potentially winnable fights against the Democrats, such as the party's current push to make sure health-care reform does not include a government-run insurance option. He continued that opposition Saturday in his response to the president's weekly radio and Internet address.

McConnell helped orchestrate one of the Republicans' most convincing victories of the year: a 90 to 6 vote rejecting Obama's plan to start closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to move some of the detainees to U.S. soil. McConnell delivered the same speech on the Senate floor day after day during April and May, attacking the proposal and saying Obama had no idea how to implement it.

On the issue of the deficit, a series of polls in recent days has shown Americans' anxiety rising about the increased spending stemming from the administration's policies, another point McConnell and other GOP leaders have repeatedly highlighted.

"When you don't have 41 members of the Senate and you don't have a nominee for president or the presidency, it is difficult to compete," McConnell said in a recent interview in his office. "You have to pick issues worth driving through the clutter. I think we have made some demonstrable headway."

McConnell's year has not been unblemished. A group of GOP senators took Obama's side on the economic stimulus bill earlier this year, allowing the $787 billion measure to pass despite strong objections from most Republicans.

Even McConnell's victories illustrate his party's difficulties. After the Guantanamo Bay gambit worked, cable news networks offered wall-to-wall coverage a few days later of a Republican leader who was giving a speech on the same day Obama was defending his policy.

But it was former vice president Richard B. Cheney, not McConnell.

"It doesn't hurt my feelings. I'm the leader of the Senate Republicans. I don't aspire to be the leader of the party," McConnell said.


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