McConnell has been intensely loyal to President Bush; his wife, Elaine L. Chao, serves as Bush's Labor secretary. His closeness has put him in an awkward position at times when conservatives have been at odds with the White House. During the 2007 debate on an immigration overhaul bill that Bush backed but conservatives abhorred, McConnell stayed out of the floor debate, not even helping to open the day's legislative proceedings or taking questions from reporters on the topic.
In October 2008, however, Reid and McConnell joined forces on pushing through the Bush administration's $700 billion plan to shore up the ailing financial services sector. The House rejected the initial measure, but Reid and McConnell got it through the Senate on the first try. "Mitch knows the Senate rules and Senate procedures . . . He has a feel for the institution," Reid said.
McConnell is devoted to tradition and constitutional principles. In 2006, he parted ways with most Republicans to oppose a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to ban flag burning. The measure failed by a single vote. He voted against it for the same reason he led the fight in 2002 against a major rewrite of campaign finance rules; McConnell, a self-described "First Amendment hawk," said both measures were violations of freedom of speech.
On the Agriculture Nutrition and Forestry Committee, McConnell looks out for Kentucky's tobacco farmers. He also serves on the Rules and Administration Committee, which handles internal Senate housekeeping matters as well as campaign finance and election legislation. McConnell blocked a rewrite of campaign finance rules for 15 years, mounting more than 20 filibusters against various iterations of the legislation. When the measure finally was enacted in 2002, he assembled some of the nation's best legal minds and took the battle to the Supreme Court, which narrowly upheld the law in 2003. Government watchdog groups vilified him as chief defender of a corrupt status quo, but he was indifferent to the notoriety and made no apologies.
During his Senate career, McConnell has served in a variety of insider roles, some more pleasant than others. From 1999-2002, he chaired the Rules committee. He also chaired the Ethics Committee in 1995 when it voted to expel Oregon Republican Bob Packwood over charges of sexual misconduct. (Packwood subsequently resigned.) During the 1998 and 2000 election cycles, he chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party's Senate campaign arm.
An only child, McConnell was born in Alabama, lived in Georgia for part of his childhood and moved to Kentucky at age 13. His father, an Army officer who fought in World War II, became a civilian Army employee after the war and then a human resources director for DuPont in Louisville.
While the family was living in Alabama, McConnell, at age 2, was stricken with polio. His mother administered a physical therapy regimen and took him to specialists in nearby Warm Springs, Ga. At their urging, she kept the child from walking until he was 4, a seemingly impossible task that saved McConnell from permanent damage to his afflicted left leg. "She was a true saint," McConnell said.