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McConnell Shows Strength in Storm

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) may not be ready to take a victory lap just yet, but his ability to keep his team together on health care reform as the debate enters one of its most crucial stages continues to bedevil the Democrats’ plans for passing the overhaul.

The year began poorly for the Republican Party: It was at one of its lowest points after its second consecutive electoral drubbing, and Members were left questioning whether McConnell’s understated style would play well against a talented and popular new president. But in the months since, Republicans said McConnell has shown the strength of his leadership.

“His often frustrating low-profile and wait-and-see approach has paid off this time as Democrats have descended into a civil war,” one Republican aide said. “Behind the scenes, he’s been firm on keeping GOP focused on developing common-sense reforms and picking apart Democrat bills on cost and less choice for patients. Many wish we had a more vocal and compelling leader, but McConnell’s style has worked well on this issue.”

But keeping the Conference unified on health care reform has been no small task. Right from the start, leaders were nervous about Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) close relationship with Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the duo’s penchant for cutting deals without consulting their colleagues.

But McConnell pre-emptively asked Grassley and other GOP Senators who were willing to negotiate with Democrats to keep him and the rest of their GOP colleagues regularly abreast of any and all developments.

“None of the negotiators were at all disturbed by that,” one senior Senate GOP aide said of McConnell’s request for consultation. “It helped them have a better feeling of where the Conference was, and it helped the Conference have a better feeling of where they were. It made sure everybody was talking.”

The key, some aides said, was that McConnell did not try to stop Grassley and three other GOP Senators who negotiated with Baucus — Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.) — from opening a dialogue, which many Republicans said was helpful in showing that they were not completely opposed to health care reforms. But by making the negotiators report back to the Conference, McConnell made sure that all four were hearing their colleagues’ often negative views of the direction of the bipartisan talks before any deals were struck.

“It wasn’t telling them what to do,” another senior Senate Republican aide said. “It was letting them know where everyone else is. ... He was very diligent in ensuring there was a Conference-wide discussion.”

Indeed, Grassley and Enzi briefed the Conference every Wednesday, and aides said the meetings often were attended by 20 to 30 Republican Senators. Negotiators also briefed McConnell personally, almost daily, aides said.

All the while, McConnell was trying to impart a strong push for unity to his rank and file.

“There’s a broad understanding [in the Conference] that what the other side wants to do is pretty radical and we all need to think twice about what deals we cut,” said Kyle Downey, spokesman for Senate GOP Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.).

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