McConnell, the Senate’s ‘Dr. No,’ Emerges as Key Deal Maker
Printer-friendly versionPDF version
a a
 
Type Size: Small
By Kirk Victor,
The Fiscal Times
December 10, 2010

From almost the moment President Obama took office, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pursued a course of action that earned him the moniker “Dr. No.” The methodical 68-year-old McConnell held virtually all his GOP troops in line as he resolutely opposed all of Obama’s top priorities — from the $787 billion economic stimulus package to the sweeping health reform measure to legislation overhauling the rules governing Wall Street. 

After the GOP won big victories in November — gaining control of the House and picking up six seats in the Senate — McConnell continued to pour on the partisan rhetoric, repeatedly accusing Democrats of failing to heed the message of voters  opposed to big government spending, a soaring deficit and high taxes.

“He [McConnell] watched what happened in 1995
and 1996 and he is most determined to make sure
that does not happen to Republicans again.”


Given that history, this implacable foe of Obama’s domestic agenda caught many by surprise when he began negotiations with Vice President Joe Biden that resulted in a breakthrough on the most contentious issue of the lame duck Congress: crafting legislation to extend the Bush tax cuts. As detailed in The New York Times, McConnell and Biden engaged in intensive back-and-forth meetings and phone calls apart from a more formal negotiating team that was also trying to craft a deal.

Ultimately, it was the secret McConnell-Biden talks that produced a deal that Obama and Republican congressional leaders agreed to back. Though it seemed out of character, long-time Senate watchers say the deal was no aberration, as McConnell is both a tough-minded partisan and a sober-minded pragmatist.

The lessons of history are not lost on the Kentucky lawmaker, who saw Republicans sweep into power in 1994, only to get outflanked by President Clinton in 1995 and 1996, in the aftermath of two government shutdowns that GOP lawmakers precipitated.  

“Sen. McConnell has been there since 1984; he knows how the cycles of politics run,” Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University, observed. “He watched what happened in 1995 and 1996 and he is most determined to make sure that does not happen to Republicans again.”

And what is the lesson from 1995? “Don’t overreach. And compromise where you can politically,” Schiller said. 

With the tax deal, some say that McConnell is
emerging as the pre-eminent Republican player,
overshadowing House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.


McConnell – who overcame polio as a child, graduated from the University of Louisville Law School and spent most of his adult life in government and politics – is a tough infighter who rarely shrinks from a battle. Last spring, he clashed with Democrats and the White House over the president’s financial regulatory overhaul proposals, and then came under withering attack after news surfaced that McConnell and Sen.John Cornyn, R-Tex., had met with financial chiefs in New York in April, on the eve of the Senate debate.

Obama and other Democrats suggested Republicans were organizing against the legislation to curry favor and campaign donations from Wall Street. Both men denied that charge.

In a subsequent speech, McConnell criticized "people [who] come down to scream and yell about my suggestions and my motives" and called on Democrats to "skip the character attacks on anyone who dares to point out flaws with the bill." 

McConnell declined to be interviewed for this story. Still, to examine the past six weeks since the Nov. 2 midterm elections is to see McConnell first as the hard-nosed pugilist belittling Democrats and playing to his party’s base, including the Tea Party, but then as the wily, calculating, behind-the-scenes operator who will cut a deal with Democrats if he sees it in his party’s best interests.

McConnell blistered Obama in a speech pledging to
make repeal of the health care reform legislation a priority.


With the tax deal, some say that McConnell is emerging as the pre-eminent Republican player, overshadowing House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, who will replace Democrat Nancy Pelosi as speaker in January. “McConnell proved this week that he really is the master of the Senate,” Scott Reed, a GOP strategist who managed former senator Bob Dole’s presidential campaign, told The Fiscal Times. “He set the terms of the debate and delivered for his caucus. That is the role of the leader.”

The contrast between that deal-cutting and his moves shortly before the midterm elections is striking. For example, McConnell told National Journal in late October that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Once the magnitude of the GOP victory was clear, McConnell followed a similarly tough script.

Just two days after the election, McConnell blistered Obama and the White House in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation, where he pledged to make repeal of the health care reform legislation a priority. He followed up by penning an op ed column with Boehner in The Washington Post excoriating Democrats for cow-towing to liberal interests.

Then on Dec. 1, McConnell went even further. He sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., signed by every Republican senator, that warned they would block anything from being considered until the Democrats agreed to an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts to every American, including the wealthiest.