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

By Karen Tumulty
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.

Marshaling his troops is something McConnell did extraordinarily well in the last Congress, when it took every one of his 41 members hanging together to block things with a filibuster.

But now, said Republican Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), "we will have to go more on offense."

In McConnell's view, that opportunity arises from the electoral map.

"Wholly aside from the Republicans, there may be Democrats anxious to cooperate with us," the Republican leader said. "You've got 23 of them up in 2012, a number of them in red states. They may be quite anxious to look a lot more Republican in the next two years, which could mean that we're not just talking about getting 41. We're talking about getting 60."

Democrats are skeptical he will get far. "He's right there will be members who will vote with his caucus on some issues," said Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). But Durbin noted that when Democratic leaders last month polled their new caucus on the question of repealing Obama's health-care law - which McConnell has vowed to bring to a vote in the Senate - they were reassured to discover that "he would not have received 50 votes."

A Senate Democratic leadership aide said that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) finds McConnell hard to figure out because he is slow to commit when they negotiate. "He does not show his hand," said the aide, who was granted anonymity to speak freely.

"He's a very tough negotiator," agreed recently retired senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who worked closely with McConnell on politically sensitive legislation revamping election procedures in the wake of the 2000 presidential recount. "But if he gives his word, it's as good as anyone's in politics. I always found he was pretty good for a handshake."

Even with greater numbers on his side, McConnell will have to contend with tensions from within, especially with the tea party reinforcements who have bolstered the ranks of a truculent conservative wing. That faction on the right is unofficially led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who is often at odds with McConnell.

Tea partyers regard McConnell with some suspicion. In his home state's Republican Senate primary last year, he made a rare break from intraparty neutrality and supported the establishment pick, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, against their candidate - and the ultimate victor -Rand Paul.

But even that was a characteristic act of calculation - albeit a wrong one - for McConnell, who dominates his home-state politics as few others senators have.

"A lot of it was concern about keeping the seat," acknowledged Grayson, "and that if we lost a seat in his home state, it would weaken him."

McConnell moved quickly, once the primary was over, to close ranks with Paul. "He was able to put it aside," Grayson said. "If there's a loss, he learns his lesson, and he moves on."

'Several moves ahead'

Hard-line partisan or deft pragmatist? Master legislator or win-at-any-cost hatchet man? In 41/2 terms in the Senate, McConnell has been every one of those things, and sometimes all of them at once. He is hard to get to know - even for his Senate colleagues - but those on both sides of the aisle agree that McConnell is far more complex than the opaque, purse-lipped image he deliberately presents.

"He's mean, smart and ruthless," said an Obama adviser, who did not want to be quoted by name criticizing someone who could have so much influence on the fate of the president's agenda.

"He's always thinking several moves ahead," said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), who heads the Senate Republicans' campaign committee. "He has learned the ways of the Senate to an extent that no one else I have seen has. It's a combination of understanding the Senate and understanding people."

"I wouldn't count him among the ideologues," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). "He's a very practical person."

Yet some who have observed McConnell over the years wonder about his principles. "He embraces the permanent campaign and the partisan war very easily," said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "There seems to be no second-thinking about whether this is the right thing to do, or whether this is good for the country."

The consummate Washington insider, McConnell is also something of a homebody who seems to have little regard for the trappings of power. His wife, former labor secretary Elaine Chao, said: "I call him my low-maintenance husband. He does his own laundry. He goes grocery shopping. He cooks - he's a better cook than I am."

McConnell says his character was shaped by an episode that he can't even remember: a two-year battle against polio that began when he was a toddler.

With his father fighting overseas in World War II, his desperate mother took him to Warm Springs, Ga., where Franklin D. Roosevelt got his physical therapy. She was told that she would have to keep her only child from walking for two years, and to administer four 45-minute sessions of therapy each day, or he would live the rest of his life in leg braces.

"I've always felt that it had a big impact on me in terms of focus, discipline, and if you stick to it even under adverse circumstances, you may succeed," he said. McConnell ultimately had a normal childhood, and even played baseball. But colleagues say they notice he does have difficulty walking downstairs.

As hard-nosed as he is about winning, McConnell sounds surprisingly idealistic when he describes his days as a young congressional intern and Senate aide in the 1960s.

It was a time when Congress got big things done by working across party lines for a purpose larger than politics. McConnell, whose father had served on the board of the Louisville Urban League, recalled being on the Mall during the March on Washington in 1963, though he was too far away to actually hear Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. He witnessed the bipartisan effort it took to break a Senate filibuster on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and maneuvered himself "inconspicuously in the back of the room" when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in the Capitol Rotunda in 1965.

"I thought it was a very inspiring place. I greatly admired a number of the people that I observed as a lowly staffer," McConnell said. "I decided I wanted to take a shot at it. I didn't know what the chances would be or when the opportunity would come, but I decided I wanted to see if maybe I could become a senator myself."

Learning how money talks

The 1984 election produced a class of Senate freshmen heavy on pedigree and political star power. Al Gore of Tennessee. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Phil Gramm of Texas. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. Tom Harkin of Iowa.

"I was kind of the accident," McConnell said. The new senator from Kentucky, whose only previous elected office had been county executive, was known only for the expensive and brutal campaign ad that got him elected.

Produced by former Nixon media adviser and future Fox News President Roger Ailes, the spot featured a pack of baying bloodhounds on the hunt for the sitting Democrat, Walter "Dee" Huddleston, as an announcer accused him of missing votes to pick up big speaking fees in exotic locales. McConnell had been more than 30 points down when he put the ad on the air, but it transformed the race.

When early polls came in showing McConnell on the verge of becoming the first Republican to win statewide in Kentucky in 16 years, "the word was that the champagne corks were being popped all over Washington," he recalled. "They figured if Mitch McConnell was winning, we must be in the middle of a landslide."

In fact, Republicans lost a seat that year, and McConnell turned out to be the only one to beat a Democratic incumbent. His early experience taught McConnell two things that have guided him since: the value of money in politics, and the power of going negative.

He would develop an expertise in campaign finance law and devote much of his career to blocking restrictions on political money - an issue that had relatively little resonance with the public at large, but one that his colleagues regard as their political lifeblood.

"This is an issue on which he made his bones internally in the Senate," said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, a leading activist for campaign finance reform who opposed McConnell. "It has been central to his career in the Senate and his rise to Senate Republican leader."

McConnell's first leadership post, as head of the campaign committee, also put him in charge of fundraising. That money built a reservoir of gratitude among his colleagues. But McConnell also immersed himself in the institution itself: its rhythms, its rivalries, its arcane procedures. He keeps confidences close, and spreads credit widely.

If McConnell has a role model in the job, he said, it is, ironically enough, a Democrat - the fiercely partisan and intensely disciplined George J. Mitchell, who served as majority leader from 1989 to 1995.

And unlike many other Senate leaders, McConnell never entertained presidential ambitions. "It is somewhat helpful to have just one agenda," he said.

But while that agenda may be shifting, the Senate Republican leader's focus hasn't.

"I have a lot of discussions with the White House that I didn't used to have. I think we'll have a lot more interaction," McConnell said. "They have obviously decided they are going in a different direction. When they basically adopt our positions, I expect we'll have a lot of interaction."

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