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McConnell Once Again Plays Coy

Which way, Mitch?

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is getting high marks from some in his Conference and criticism from others for his handling of a proposed $15 billion rescue package for the Big Three domestic automobile manufacturers. But what remains unclear is McConnell’s endgame.

“He doesn’t know where he wants this to go yet, because he doesn’t know all of the possible solutions,” a senior Senate Republican aide said Wednesday, following the GOP Conference policy lunch in which nearly every Member present voiced an opinion. “He has not made up his mind; he will, ultimately.”

McConnell’s posture is somewhat familiar. In the two years since he assumed the top Senate Republican slot, he often has worked to avoid internal party fights or step in the middle of a divided Conference, particularly when the stakes are high. On a handful of issues, McConnell stood in the shadows while his party dueled over controversial topics such as immigration reform.

Yet in the past, just like with the current battle over an automotive rescue plan, McConnell and his allies have argued his cautious approach doesn’t amount to a lack of leadership. Rather, they insist just the opposite and argue McConnell looks to take his Conference’s temperature before formulating his own policy decisions that he bases on what’s in the best interests of Kentucky and the country.

“Sen. McConnell’s responsibility to Kentucky, his Conference, and all Americans is to find the best way for our auto manufacturers to continue to do business without putting taxpayers on the hook for a failed business model,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said.

McConnell has a reputation as a master parliamentarian and knowing what Senate rules to employ to tie the Democratic majority in knots and achieve a desired outcome. But as a leader who steers his Conference toward a unified position on policy, McConnell has long been viewed by some as unwilling and overly cautious.

One Senate Republican staffer said McConnell’s low profile on the current automobile bailout issue has engendered some frustration within his Conference. The feeling among those who are less than pleased with McConnell’s cautious handling of the matter is that the Minority Leader has been reacting to the actions of Senate Democrats and the White House, rather than operating from a forward-thinking strategic framework.

This source said some Republicans would have liked to have seen the GOP put forward an alternative plan, as opposed to being in a position where the public perception is that the Conference must either accept or reject a bill negotiated by House and Senate Democratic leaders and President George W. Bush. Some in the Conference who are displeased with McConnell’s quiet approach have been hoping that he would act more decisively with his successful, albeit bitter, campaign for re-election now behind him.

“Why didn’t we come out front and lay the groundwork for the Democrats to take tough votes?” this GOP Senate aide asked.

No individual critical of McConnell’s leadership on the auto bailout debate would speak for the record, and those who would comment for attribution were uniformly complimentary.

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