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McConnell Once Again Plays Coy

Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), the Conference’s incoming Policy Committee chairman and one of the most vocal Members opposing a bailout of the automobile manufacturers, praised McConnell for taking the pulse of Senate Republicans rather than dictating that they stake out a particular position

Ensign, speaking after a private policy lunch that featured Vice President Dick Cheney and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, said McConnell in fact did not tell his colleagues Wednesday where he stands — either on the matter generally or a legislative proposal specifically.

Ensign has clearly acted in the mold of a forceful leader on this issue, announcing Tuesday he would use every parliamentary lever at his disposal to block the deal struck by the Democrats and the White House. But Ensign nevertheless said that McConnell’s move to determine consensus before pushing the Conference in a particular direction was the correct one.

“I think it’s proper for the Senate leader to do that,” Ensign said.

A second senior Republican Senate aide confirmed that there has been widespread satisfaction with McConnell’s handling of the auto rescue issue, arguing that any strong-arming by the Minority Leader would have been soundly rejected. Although GOP Sens. Kit Bond (Mo.) and George Voinovich (Ohio) have shown a strong interest in rescuing the automakers, even many of the more practical-minded Republicans who supported the $700 billion financial markets bailout have balked at ponying up for Detroit.

Figuring out where McConnell is likely to land on this matter has been difficult to discern.

The domestic automobile industry employs approximately 47,000 Kentuckians, including 16,000 in assembly plants and 31,000 who work for related companies such as parts suppliers. However, McConnell’s vote in October for the $700 billion rescue of the financial markets did not go over well at home, nearly costing him his long-held seat.

Political observers familiar with Kentucky predict that, absent McConnell’s constituents who are employed by the automobile companies, any rescue package for Detroit’s Big Three is likely to be met with disgust in the Bluegrass State. Accordingly, McConnell is concerned about the potential for massive job losses and would like to prevent that from happening. But he does not necessarily see a political benefit to voting in favor of another bailout.

McConnell believes his decision to tread lightly on throwing a lifeline to Chrysler, General Motors and Ford has allowed him to manage a Conference with very strong opinions — mostly against — and allow for additional potential solutions that could not come about had he staked out a position early. One example being cited is a new proposal by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), which might have legs.

The senior Senate Republican aide who confirmed that McConnell has yet to make up his mind on how he’ll vote should a bill reach the Senate floor noted that the GOP leader was only able to hear from his full Conference on Wednesday. This aide emphasized that it would have been premature for McConnell to stake out a position before he had a sense for where his colleagues are.

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