Mitch McConnell's big test

Now that he's got the power role he's always wanted, the Senate dealmaker must navigate between a rebellious G.O.P. and a legacy-minded president.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
In this Nov. 4, 2014 file photo, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, joined by his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, celebrates with his supporters at an election night party in Louisville, Ky.

“Does anyone down there know how to do a deal?” drawled the Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, over the phone to Vice President Joe Biden.

It was Sunday afternoon on Dec. 30, 2012, with less than 34 hours to go before the United States would careen over the “fiscal cliff.” President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio had tried, and failed, to negotiate a deal to avert the steep tax hikes and brutal spending cuts scheduled to kick in on New Year’s Day. The challenge had fallen to Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada and Mr. McConnell, the minority leader from Kentucky.

McConnell was prepared. Having anticipated the breakdown, he had already consulted his caucus and knew how far he could go. But that Sunday Senator Reid had suddenly broken off talks. Suspecting that Reid was willing to go over the cliff – but that the White House actually wanted a deal before then – McConnell bypassed him. Thus the overture to Mr. Biden. 

The two men had brokered deals before, extending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts in 2010 and raising the debt ceiling in 2011 – ending a game of brinkmanship that had turned the financial markets and the country into a nervous wreck. Now here was the vice president – a former senator known around the White House as the “McConnell whisperer” – returning the minority leader’s call. Biden had the approval of his boss to start bargaining.

Over the next 24 hours or so, about a dozen phone calls were placed between the two men. They worked past midnight Sunday, with McConnell’s aides roasting hot dogs in an office fireplace for sustenance. 

On New Year’s Eve, as revelers scurried about Washington, the minority leader and vice president reached a modest but psychologically significant deal. Each side got something, and each side gave up something. The deal was vintage McConnell. 

Now that Republicans have trounced Democrats in the midterm elections, strengthening their grip on the House and retaking control of the Senate, the tough negotiator from Kentucky says he is ready to deal again. When the 114th Congress convenes in January, McConnell will finally reach his goal of majority leader – a job that has taken him three decades in the Senate to achieve and for which he has been preparing seemingly since grade school.

But will this be McConnell’s moment? Can he overcome the gridlock, work with the president, and prove that Republicans can govern – as he has said he wants to do? It is the question of the hour, and yet, like the Capitol Dome currently imprisoned by scaffolding, the answer seems locked up tight. At least for now.

Among the troika of power brokers in Washington – the president, the speaker of the House, and the Senate majority leader – McConnell’s jowly face is the only “new” one. He says he wants to “work together” with the president on important areas such as trade and tax reform. A master of Senate history and rules, he promises to return the gridlocked chamber to an institution of open debate and respect. He brings decades of determination, finely honed political instincts, and unmatched tactical skill to his job.

Despite years spent blocking the president’s agenda – and campaigning against it – he has also stepped in to end several high-stakes crises, including last year’s partial government shutdown. John Feehery, who was once the spokesman for former GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, called McConnell “the indispensable man” in those late-night fiscal cliff negotiations with Biden.

And yet, the unflappable McConnell now faces a president who seems to have peeled off the “no drama Obama” label. His prime-time brandishing of his executive action powers on immigration – granting a deportation reprieve to millions of undocumented immigrants – enraged Republicans on Capitol Hill and will likely make it harder for McConnell to act or sound conciliatory as he prepares to put his stamp on the Senate. Rather than getting off to a smooth start, Washington may be headed for another showdown.

Beneath it all the question looms: Even if McConnell is inclined to, can he make a difference in this kind of climate, or will he get pulled by Obama or members of his own party into two years of partisan sniping – the making of a movie trailer for 2016?

“In theory, this is precisely the type of legislator one might want heading the Senate if we’re looking to reach deals in a period of divided government,” says Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. In theory.

In his first press conference after the elections, McConnell said that one message from voters was to do something about dysfunction in Washington. “I think there are a lot of people who believe that just because you have divided government, that doesn’t mean you don’t accomplish anything.”

He and others have pointed to the Reagan and Clinton presidencies – two times when Congress and the White House were occupied by opposing parties. President Reagan and Democrats in the House agreed on tax reform and a way to shore up Social Security; President Clinton and congressional Republicans agreed on welfare reform and a balanced budget.

But Ms. Binder and others note that these are different times. First, there are fewer moderates in Congress with whom a president can cut deals. Second, the polarization that was once focused in Washington has gone national, fueled by 24/7 news coverage and social media, partisan bloggers and talk-show hosts.

“The building material of Clinton’s [time] doesn’t exist,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. And Mr. Obama is not Bill Clinton. “The fact is this is not a natural politician. This is somebody who is intelligent and eloquent, but probably the worst retail politician since Calvin Coolidge.”

Not only that, Obama seems delighted to tap his executive powers after years of being beat up by Republicans like McConnell and Speaker Boehner. Remember, it was McConnell who famously told the National Journal that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Still, says former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, don’t underestimate McConnell. “The wheels could come off,” he admits. On the other hand, heading up the Senate “is something Mitch has been working toward for close to 50 years,” he says. “This is a lifetime work, and he’s not going to let this opportunity fritter away.”

•     •     • 

McConnell’s political instincts were evident as early as his teenage years. An only child born in Alabama in 1942, he moved with his parents first to Georgia and then to Kentucky at age 13, when his father, a manager at DuPont, was transferred. The family settled in a middle-class neighborhood in Louisville’s south end.

Young Mitch’s interests turned from baseball to politics. Though he could swing a bat pretty well, he would prove far more adept at the game of electioneering. In junior high, he became vice president of the student council, but, as he commented wryly later in life, “I never liked being vice president of anything.”

In high school, he moved one notch higher: He was elected student-body president by outmaneuvering a formidable rival. He secured “celebrity” endorsements from popular athletes, leafleted every locker in the large Gothic school, and reached down into the ignored lower grades for votes, according to a biography of McConnell, “Republican Leader,” by John David Dyche.

He continued his political involvement at the University of Louisville, but the terrain was complex when he went there in the early 1960s. The urban university was mostly a commuter school, and Mitch lived with his parents at home, where the family Oldsmobile sported, at his doing, a Richard Nixon bumper sticker. He lost several campus leadership races until he realized the importance of the fraternities and sororities, which acted like competing political parties.

McConnell joined one of the leading fraternities, Phi Kappa Tau. In his junior year, he masterminded a campaign to support a slate of candidates for the College of Arts & Sciences student council – with himself at the top for president.

David Huber, who was a year behind McConnell and in the same fraternity, remembers his friend’s get-out-the-vote strategy: “He instructed me and others to go to as many people within the sororities and fraternities and get as many people to vote for them [as possible].” Each person would be responsible for reaching out to five or 10 others, who would be encouraged to deliver the message to five or 10 more. This time he won.

McConnell’s focus wasn’t on ideology, says Mr. Huber, it was on winning. “Putting together coalitions was what he did in college.”

And that’s what he’s done just about ever since – from his student-government days at the University of Kentucky College of Law, to his first election to public office as judge executive of Jefferson County (which includes Louisville), to winning a US Senate seat in 1984 (the only Republican to unseat a Democratic incumbent senator that year). He has become Kentucky’s longest serving senator, and, along the way, almost single-handedly rebuilt the state’s GOP.

McConnell’s ideology has traveled a considerable distance, too. Before entering law school, the 22-year-old interned with Kentucky’s moderate GOP Sen. John Sherman Cooper, who was instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. McConnell admired the stand Mr. Cooper took on the legislation. Cooper turned from hawk to dove on the Vietnam War, which McConnell opposed, too.

As a county executive, McConnell – by then a husband and father – was a moderate Republican, promoting historical preservation, abortion rights, and the environment. He reformed a system rife with cronyism by putting professionals in managerial jobs and worked with Democrats in the Louisville and county governments. “He set a standard that all the mayors and judge executives have since followed,” says Keith Runyon, a writer and editor for The Courier-Journal for 43 years.

As the party evolved, so did McConnell. Now he’s firmly antiabortion and wants to roll back federal environmental regulations that he says are killing Kentucky’s coal industry. In the most recent election, he hammered his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, incessantly tying her to an unpopular Obama. The candidates started out the race even in the polls. He ended up topping her by nearly 16 points. 

“Mitch grew up in an era when Republicans were in a permanent minority,” says Mr. Runyon. “They had not controlled Congress since he was a boy in the ’40s.” That gave Republicans an inferiority complex, and “Mitch has that built into him a little bit,” Runyon notes. He coped with his underdog political status through deft use of the media and well-funded campaigns. Over the years, he has become one of Washington’s most ardent foes of campaign finance restrictions, which he equates with the suppression of free speech.

Those who know McConnell describe him as very methodical. He has an ability to find allies, relies on a loyal network of supporters from whom he expects no drama and no mistakes, and possesses singular political instincts. In negotiations, he plots carefully, waiting for the right time to move. “He will be very patient,” says Mr. Feehery, the former aide to Speaker Hastert. “He’s a tough negotiator. He knows his caucus.”

McConnell’s former chief of staff, Billy Piper, calls him the best he’s seen at thinking through all the options and consequences. He always has a plan and is never hasty. He never makes unforced errors. “It’s not even chess,” he says. “It’s three-dimensional chess.”

College friend Huber, who was Jefferson County’s chief administrative officer when McConnell was county judge executive, recalls how his boss would get lost in thought when they would occasionally walk to lunch.

“We’d be walking down the street. He’d be looking down and thinking – not looking at people. He wasn’t ignoring them. He was thinking,” says Huber. “That’s why he is where he is. I’d nudge him as people passed, and he’d say ‘Hi’ to them. I’d have to explain to people, ‘Well, he isn’t stuck up. It’s not that.’ He was just always focused on what was next.”

McConnell once said “focus” was “the most important word in the English language.” It’s right up there with determination and tenacity, qualities that he credits to his mother when she helped him fight polio as a boy.

Mitch contracted the disease as a 2-year-old in the summer of 1944. His mother took him to a polio-treatment center in Warm Springs, Ga., founded by Franklin D. Roosevelt. The staff showed her how to give her son physical therapy, which she carried out every day for two years, even as her husband was away in the Army. She also kept him off his feet, at the doctors’ request, by reading to him and drawing and playing with toys with him on his bed.

“The example of incredible discipline that she was teaching me during this period, I always felt had an impact on the rest of my life in terms of whatever discipline I may have been able to bring to bear on things I have been involved in,” said McConnell in 2005 on the 50th anniversary of the polio vaccine. 

•     •     • 

In his expansive Capitol Hill office, McConnell keeps a portrait on the wall of one of his heroes and, notably, another lawmaker from Kentucky: Henry Clay. McConnell admires the 19th-century senator and statesman, known as the “great compromiser,” so much that he has had congressional resolutions passed mandating that Clay’s desk on the Senate floor always go to a lawmaker from Kentucky. 

McConnell also reveres another former senator, this one a Democrat from Montana and the 20th century – Mike Mansfield, the upper chamber’s longest-serving majority leader. “There are many well-known stories about Mansfield’s fairness and equanimity as leader,” McConnell said in a floor speech last January. “They all seem to come down to one thing, and that was his unbending belief that every senator should be treated as an equal.”

McConnell’s admiration for both men offers some insight into where he wants to take the Senate as majority leader – and perhaps the nation. Indeed, in his January speech, which offered a road map to a GOP-run chamber, McConnell said he wanted to bring back the five-day workweek, return the power of legislating to committees, and allow amendments from both sides to come up for debate. This is in sharp contrast to Reid’s tight control of the legislative process – which, in turn, was a response to McConnell’s heavy use of the filibuster as a blocking mechanism.

These mechanical changes might seem arcane to many Americans, but their point is to lubricate the lawmaking process. Mc-
 Connell believes that if debate is allowed and amendments are voted on – even ones that may hurt individual Republican senators or the party – the best ideas will rise to the top and eventually become law. Senators will at least be allowed their say. America’s great debates, from the Civil War to civil rights, have gone through the Senate, the place where America finds its footing, he says. The nation’s problems can’t be solved without open debate.

Former majority leader Lott says that starting with even small bipartisan agreements can “be contagious” and lead to other agreements. Can McConnell pull it off in a chamber of big egos and sharp elbows, where it only takes one senator to bring things to a halt and 60 to restart it?

“This is his biggest test,” says Jim Manley, a former aide to Reid. For a minority leader, “stopping deals is easy.” As majority leader, McConnell now has to juggle tea party renegades, GOP presidential aspirants, and Senate Democrats who will want to pin a “do nothing” label on Republicans as they head into the next election.

Democrats remember well McConnell as chief blocker – leading more than 500 filibusters after Obama became president, shutting down the “public option” in health care and carbon cap-and-trade legislation. McConnell has made it clear that he still knows how to play rough. He intends to use budget measures that require only a majority vote to roll back regulations such as those on carbon emissions. And he’s looking at a “buffet” of options to repeal the Affordable Care Act in its entirety, or parts of it, says McConnell spokesman Don Stewart.

The conventional wisdom is that McConnell’s more open Senate will close like a drawbridge as soon as Democrats attach amendments designed to wound Republicans in the 2016 election – things such as a minimum wage hike or a pay-equity bill – which many in the GOP oppose. Members of McConnell’s caucus will pressure him to keep those bills off the floor, just as Reid suppressed GOP initiatives. Similarly, Democrats will seek to protect the president and themselves from legislation they deem harmful. The Senate will seize up, again.

Not everyone buys into this narrative, though. “Those prognosticators who say this will work for only a week are dead wrong,” says Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, known as a bridge-builder on the Hill. “Not only is Mitch committed, but there’s a large group of people from both sides of the aisle who are really frustrated with the way the Senate has been run.”

At least six Democrats, for instance, voted against Reid when he stood for reelection as party leader Nov. 13. His bottling-up of amendments never allowed Democrats to go on record for positions that differed from the president’s.

One who voted against Reid was Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, from the energy state of North Dakota, a big proponent of the Keystone XL pipeline. “The American people are tired of gridlock and so am I,” she said in a statement to the Monitor. “For months, I have been working to bring together some Republican and Democratic senators to try to get the Senate working again.” She says she’ll continue that effort.

Yet Democrats are not McConnell’s only worry. Tea partyers such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, who led the way last year to a partial government shutdown over “Obamacare,” may not want to compromise. He and other senators have already been advocating a funding showdown and blocking some of Obama’s nominations in the new year over the immigration issue. 

The threat from McConnell’s right, to be sure, was ameliorated somewhat by the GOP establishment’s defeat of many tea party candidates in this year’s primary contests. He may also be aided by his tight relationship with fellow Kentuckian Sen. Rand Paul, a tea party darling who could prove useful in dealing with conservatives, despite his presidential ambitions and independent streak. 

Of course, even if McConnell succeeds in coordinating with the House, with all its rebels, and letting the Senate “work its will,” there’s still the president to consider. The trick here is whether he and Obama can still do business – say, on reducing the corporate tax rate or finding a way to pay for America’s sagging infrastructure – even as each takes actions the other finds hostile.

It’s doubtful that they will suddenly develop a cozy relationship, with or without the so-called bourbon summit, the shared drink McConnell has said he will have with Obama (no time announced yet). But for the Senate’s supreme tactician, that may not be so important. With him, it’s all about business.

“He really does look at politics as a business, as a profession – as opposed to personality, sentiment, like or dislike of individuals,” says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. 

That no-nonsense sentiment may have been no more evident than at a football game in 2004. McConnell had flown to New Orleans to watch his beloved University of Louisville Cardinals take on Tulane University at the Superdome. Then-Kentucky state Senate President David Williams had arranged for McConnell to attend a reception hosted by Louisiana Republicans and supporters in a well-stocked luxury suite. Partway through the first half, Mr. Williams noticed McConnell was gone.

He eventually found the senator across the Superdome in a small room furnished with only four metal folding chairs.

“Well,” Williams said McConnell told him, “I could see we weren’t going to make any attempt to watch the game over there.”

Staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock in Washington and contributor Ryan Alessi in Murray, Ky., contributed to this report. 

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