McConnell, the Senate’s ‘Dr. No,’ Emerges as Key Deal Maker
Policy + Politics

McConnell, the Senate’s ‘Dr. No,’ Emerges as Key Deal Maker

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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.

The letter clearly annoyed Reid, who, as majority leader, is empowered to set the Senate agenda. But the threat worked. McConnell’s in-your-face approach forced the Democrats’ hand. They took up the contentious tax issue before addressing other items on their agenda, including the START nuclear treaty with Russia. 

Then, seemingly out of the blue, the enigmatic McConnell cut that deal with Biden. That result is at odds with McConnell’s my-way-or-the-highway public pose. The tentative agreement secured the GOP’s top goal of extending the Bush tax cuts, though only for two years, and won greater breaks for wealthy estates, another longtime GOP objective. But it also gave Obama his priority of extending unemployment assistance for 13 months for the long-term unemployed, as well as his objective of a payroll tax and other tax credits.

“The public McConnell has been confrontational, brash
and dogmatic. The private McConnell is prepared
to deal and is not paralyzed by ideological constraints.”

The deal showed that McConnell’s sometimes combative public persona doesn’t tell the whole story. Some political experts say it would be a mistake to dismiss him simply as a hyperpartisan leader, whose main interest is scoring political points. Now that Republicans will take control of the House and are well-positioned to grab control of the Senate in 2012, the resolute lawmaker wants to demonstrate that he can govern, they say.

“As in the case of so many politicians, there is a public McConnell and a private McConnell,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. “And the public McConnell, since the election, has been confrontational, brash and dogmatic at times. The private McConnell is very much a man of the Senate, who understands the nature of the deal, is prepared to deal and is not paralyzed by ideological constraints.”

Some experts even see the deal as helping Obama as much as the GOP. “Republicans got several things that they wanted, but what Obama got was a second stimulus package and that is huge in terms of his long-term political prospects. That really offers hope of stimulating the economy and lowering the unemployment rate,” Darrell West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview.

“The public persona is that McConnell wants to turn Obama into a one term president. But he just gave him an economic stimulus package that could revive the economy just enough to gain reelection for the president,” West added.

At the same time, McConnell is not impervious to broader political currents. When his Senate candidate, Trey Grayson, lost to tea party-backed Rand Paul in the GOP primary in Kentucky McConnell saw the power of the hard-charging activists in his party. So, shortly after the election McConnell went to the Senate floor and in a stunning reversal of a long-held position, he endorsed a moratorium on earmarks.  

“The 2010 midterm election was a ‘change’ election the likes of which I have never seen, and the change that people want, above all, is right here in Washington,” he said on November 15. “That means that all of us in Washington need to get serious about changing the way we do business, even on things we have defended in the past.” But that position came after McConnell had spent his political career in the Senate, successfully—and unapologetically—steering federal largesse to projects back in Kentucky.

“I was pleasantly pleased [by his reversal],” Reed said. “I’m looking at this as we have four to six months to get the tea party solidly back as part of the Republican coalition. They vote with us. Now they have to be pleased with how we govern. If that can be in place by April, Boehner and McConnell will be super-duper stars.”

Part of being a leader is steering his caucus to stay focused even as some independent-minded veterans might consider a different course that deviates from the party position. “He is a very disciplined person,” Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said in an interview. “He doesn’t capitulate. He picks a direction and that is the direction he stays on. It doesn’t always achieve consensus but I am not sure the majority leader or minority leader of the Senate is one whose goal is consensus. His goal is to try to make sure that the minority rights are protected.”

Still the battle over Obama’s top domestic priority last year, overhauling the health care system, showed McConnell’s ability to hold his troops together. He made an early calculation in the spring of 2009  that defying Obama on health care reform posed less of a risk to Republicans than seemed apparent in the wake of Obama’s landslide election results, in which many Republicans and independents supported the new president. Beginning that May, McConnell began declaring publicly that his party stood ready to work with the president to reform the health care system, while stressing that “it's important to get it right” and avoid creation of a  government-run health care system

Still, today, his role is a bit different. He can’t simply be the persistent critic. He must be more deft. “His danger line is how to balance the really conservative activist forces in the party with the responsibility of governing,” Schiller said, “because if they don’t govern they can’t win the Senate back. I think that’s the big Catch 22.”

Eric Pianin of The Fiscal Times contributed to this report.

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