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Mitch McConnell, reading the tea leaves

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The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza give their analysis of the primary elections that sent incumbents packing and has rattled the establishment.

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By Dana Milbank
Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Senate chaplain's opening prayer could have been written for Mitch McConnell.

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"Lord, save us from our disappointments," the Rev. Barry Black beseeched as the Senate opened its Wednesday session. "As they persevere through the darkness of challenges, enable our lawmakers to see the stars of your providential work. . . . Make them strong in the broken places."

McConnell, the Senate minority leader, was surely seeing stars Tuesday night, and his political operation wound up with quite a few broken places. His handpicked candidate in the Senate Republican primary in his home state of Kentucky had been trounced by "tea party" champion Rand Paul. There have already been calls for McConnell's ouster as Republican leader, and the pundits have named him and vanquished Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) the biggest losers in Tuesday's primaries.

But while McConnell may not be much of a kingmaker, he's definitely a fast learner. Rather than nurse his political hangover, he charged into the Senate chamber minutes after it opened and delivered a speech that could have been written by Rand Paul.

The administration's "arrogance," he said, is "astounding." President Obama is "bent on expanding government at any cost." Washington has "taken over banks, insurance companies, car companies, the student loan business and health care, and now it's got its sights set on anyone in America who engages in a financial transaction." The radicalized McConnell employed the playground taunt of "We were right" and said the administration "has lost all perspective about the limits of government."

Rand Paul's victory revived the speculation about whether the tea party will take over the Republican Party. Judging from the behavior of McConnell and his colleagues, it already has. Though tea party victories have been relatively few -- Republican contests in Kentucky, Florida and Utah -- terrified Republican lawmakers have moved to co-opt the rhetoric of the protest rallies.

McConnell has been particularly quick on his feet. Even as Tuesday's ballots were being cast in Kentucky, he held a news conference in the hallway outside the Senate and all but called Obama a socialist.

"They're running banks, insurance companies, car companies, taking over the student loan business, taking over health care, now, apparently doing to the financial services industry what they did to the health-care industry, doubling the national debt in five years, tripling it in 10," he railed. "They've got people over at the FCC trying to take over the Internet. This is a massive government overreach."

Those words still weren't enough to put McConnell in the good graces of longtime conservative leader Richard Viguerie, who called Paul's victory in Kentucky "a massive repudiation of McConnell" and a "no confidence" vote in his leadership. He said in a statement that "GOP leaders are enormously out of touch with the base of the Republican Party."

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a tea party favorite, clearly was referring to McConnell when he issued a statement boasting that "the Washington establishment threw everything they had at [Paul] and yet he prevailed."

McConnell looked grim, his lips pursed, as he walked onto the floor -- although, in fairness, he usually wears that expression. He reviewed his speech, took a sip of water, tucked his microphone in his shirt pocket and got to work excoriating the Democrats over the financial regulatory bill before the Senate.

"At the outset of this debate, Republicans argued that getting onto the bill would be a mistake since Democrats had no intention of improving it," he said. "As it turns out, we were right. . . . This is worse than irresponsible; it's the legislative equivalent of wrongful conviction."

Actually, the legislation had been "improved" with 29 amendments that passed. Twelve had been written by Republicans, and another 12 were Democratic amendments that got unanimous or near-unanimous support. But cooperating with Democrats was not something the tea-party-frightened Republicans wished to advertise.

The other loser from Tuesday's primary purges, Specter, didn't show up for work Wednesday. But when a key vote came in the afternoon, McConnell was there on the floor, whipping his Republicans into line as they defended their filibuster of the financial bill.

Democrats held the vote open for an extra 45 minutes as they tried to round up more votes, so McConnell went to the cloakroom to make sure wavering Republicans remained in the "no" column. When Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass) cast the "no" vote that clinched the Republican victory, McConnell, standing in the well, gave a nod and allowed his lips to curl into a slight smile. The smile broadened when the final tally was announced; he had kept all but two Republicans in line.

Then, as McConnell turned to go back to his office, a startling thing happened: He stopped to talk with Democratic leaders Harry Reid (Nev.) and Dick Durbin (Ill.) -- two of the very people McConnell had that very day accused of driving the republic to ruin. The three laughed at a private joke. McConnell gave Durbin a friendly pat on the biceps. Durbin reciprocated with an affectionate clasp of McConnell's forearm. McConnell walked away smiling.

Better not let the tea party folks see that.


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