Mitch McConnell: A Senate obstructionist could turn into a man of action

With a Republican majority in the House, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is being looked to as someone who can deliver on the conservative agenda.
With a Republican majority in the House, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is being looked to as someone who can deliver on the conservative agenda. (The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 12:36 AM

ELIZABETHTOWN, KY. - In the first two years of Barack Obama's presidency, Mitch McConnell raised the art of obstructionism to new levels. When McConnell and his united GOP troops couldn't stop things from getting through the Senate, they made sure the Democrats paid a heavy price for winning.

But now, the Senate minority leader who used to refer to himself as "the abominable no-man" faces a very different challenge: Can he actually deliver?

"The first two years, it was frankly pretty simple. From my point of view, they didn't try to do anything in the political center in the first two years, so there was no particular appeal" in trying to get things done, McConnell said in an interview, as he traveled his home state during a recent recess. "The biggest difference will be deciding when we are actually in a position to work with the administration, and when we aren't."

Bipartisanship, of course, is just about everyone's favorite tune these days. But for McConnell - who has some of the best tactical instincts in modern Washington - the choices ahead are pivotal.

Having a new Republican majority in the House and six new GOP senators, his hand is stronger. But with more power comes higher expectations. The Republicans' political gains are fragile, and voters - who have tossed a party out in each of the past three elections - have shown they will not tolerate politicians who don't produce results.

McConnell said the window for doing that is small, maybe six to nine months, before the presidential campaign overtakes everything else.

The potential for doing business with the Obama administration is there, however, as evidenced by the deal-making last month between McConnell and Vice President Biden. It produced a tax cut - and McConnell's first-ever invitation to a bill-signing ceremony at the Obama White House, where the president lauded their "extraordinary work."

The vice president and the GOP leader now speak frequently on the phone. And on Feb. 11, Biden will join him for a conference on Senate leadership at a location that is both close to McConnell's heart and a beneficiary of his fundraising prowess: the University of Louisville's McConnell Center.

It's a new relationship for a Republican leader who didn't have a one-on-one meeting with the president until more than a year and a half into Obama's term.

"It was just business. I wasn't relevant to their business in the 111th Congress and I understood that," McConnell said. "Things have shifted."

At the same time, McConnell is crucial to pushing forward his own party's conservative agenda. And he has said that ensuring that Obama is a one-term president is his "top political priority."

While the new House speaker, John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), will probably be able to get pretty much anything he wants in his chamber, the Senate could be the burying ground for those initiatives. That was the case the last time Republicans took charge of the House in 1995, even though the GOP also held a narrow majority in the Senate.

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