Without a member of his party in the White House, Kentucky's cannily conservative Mitch McConnell will be the GOP's most powerful politician in 2009. But it will require all of his backroom dealing and parliamentary skills to thwart an expanded Democratic majority that is likely to be intent on pushing President-elect Barack Obama's agenda through Congress.
As minority leader, McConnell's goal for the 111th Congress (2009-10) is to keep his party tightly unified as he tries to block Democratic initiatives while picking up at least a few moderate Democrats to support GOP alternatives. Many Republicans agree he is up to the task, pointing to his talent for both negotiating and playing hardball.
In his first two years as his party's leader during the 110th Congress (2007-08), McConnell repeatedly resorted to filibusters and parliamentary objections to block bills and conference negotiations. As of November 2008, there were 110 votes to invoke cloture -- or end debate -- on Senate legislation, well above the previous record of 61 in the 107th Congress (2001-02).
During the summer of 2007, as GOP senators repeatedly objected to amendments relating to the Iraq War, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada sent McConnell a letter chastising him for "partisan obstruction that I fear will make us less, not more, secure." But McConnell was unyielding. "The majority has the responsibility to set the agenda,'' he said. "If you set an overly partisan agenda, you get . . . what they would argue is an overly partisan response."
McConnell can be a consummate pragmatist; he is an inside player who can cut deals and accept less than a full loaf to get a job done. "I'm a conservative Republican. On most issues, I would like to see a right-of-center result," he has said. "But I've also been in legislative politics long enough to know that rarely do you get exactly what you want. Our whole process is about accepting less than what you want in order to advance the ball."
As the top-ranking Senate Republican, McConnell prefers to guide his party through persuasion rather than threats. "I start with the notion that everyone in the Senate is smart or they wouldn't have made it this far in politics. So I spend a lot of time listening," he said.
In 2006, he managed to avert an embarrassing loss for Bush on a big budget bill. Faced with possible defections by Republicans who disagreed with Bush's spending priorities, McConnell secretly wooed a Democrat, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, just days before a showdown Senate floor vote. McConnell persuaded then-Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee to make an overture to Landrieu, and then, in his role as an Appropriations subcommittee chairman, he and other Republicans on the committee devised a package of recovery spending for Landrieu's state, heavily damaged by hurricanes the summer before. Landrieu's lone Democratic vote for Bush's budget gave political cover to wavering moderate Republicans, who fell in line behind the plan, providing a narrow but decisive 51-vote majority on the floor.