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McConnell Yet to Engage on War

A virtual no-show during last month’s divisive immigration debate, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is expected by his fellow Republicans to emerge soon from the shadows and reassert himself as a leading face of the GOP. But at least in the early hours of this week’s showdown over the Iraq War, that hasn’t happened yet.

McConnell was missing for much of the Senate’s consideration of comprehensive immigration reform — a controversial measure that the Minority Leader quietly opposed and one that divided his party.

But the Iraq debate is different, Republicans insisted, given that many Senators and McConnell himself are largely unified behind a message of giving the White House until September to demonstrate progress in the region. That unity, they said, should make it easier for McConnell to once again flex his leadership muscle despite a handful of well-publicized GOP doubters.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) — who along with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and other conservatives benefited from McConnell’s decision to bow out of the immigration fight last month — said prior to Tuesday’s policy lunch that he expected McConnell to resume his position at the front of the party now that Iraq was on the front burner.

Sessions said that while he “felt it was appropriate that Sen. McConnell did not weigh in [on immigration] and basically let it play out,” he believed that with much of the GOP still behind the president on Iraq, McConnell would step up.

“I think he will provide leadership,” Sessions said.

“Immigration breaks across party lines, it’s a unique situation,” added conservative Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). “Mitch has a great style in my judgment. He’s greatly underestimated until the votes are tallied, then you see what a great leader he really is. You’re going to see that play out this week. “

The extent to which that maneuvering will be public, however, remains to be seen. Even though McConnell has been to the floor more times in the past two days than during the bulk of the immigration debate, and led a cadre of his colleagues to the microphones on Tuesday to defend the White House efforts in Iraq, his comments on the war policy have been among the Senate’s most tepid.

Republican aides noted that McConnell was supposed to use his Tuesday press availability to take aim at an Iraq redeployment proposal sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.). But instead of attacking Democrats’ positions, McConnell made only brief comments, which he limited to a vow to hold Democrats to a 60-vote threshold for any Iraq amendments.

In contrast, GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), John Cornyn (Texas) and Kit Bond (Mo.) took turns lambasting the Democrats, arguing that a troop withdrawal would benefit terrorist cells in the country.

What’s more, McConnell has been absent from several high-powered meetings on Iraq with other senior Republicans, including Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.), McCain and Graham. Those Senators have been in discussions with the White House over the past several days to determine how best to proceed on the Defense Department authorization bill.

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