McCon­nell could chart new course in Se­nate

Mi­nor­ity leader has been Obama road­block. Now, he’s poised to boost GOP.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY KAREN TUMULTY

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. Frommy 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, how-

ever, 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 burial 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 (DIll.). 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 M. 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 hishome­s­tate, 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 ev­ery­one of those things, and some­times all of the mat 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.”

MELINA MARA/THE WASHINGTON POST

Se­nateMi­nor­ity Lead­erMitchMcCon­nell has a nar­row win­dow in which to pro­duce re­sults to please Repub­li­can sup­port­ers.

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