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.
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.
McConnell showed an early taste for politics. He was student body president in high school and in college, and president of his law school class. After law school, he worked for GOP Sen. Marlow W. Cook of Kentucky, then served as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Ford administration. He served two terms as the chief executive of Jefferson County, now Louisville Metro, before waging his winning 1984 Senate race. His campaign against two-term Democratic Sen. Walter D. Huddleston struggled until McConnell demonstrated the incumbent had limited influence and was often absent from committee meetings; McConnell aired television ads showing bloodhounds sniffing around Washington in search of Huddleston. McConnell won by four-tenths of a percentage point.
In 1990, McConnell advertised the fact that he was present and voted 99 percent of the time during his first term. He won with 52 percent of the vote. His margin of victory has grown in each of his subsequent races.
In 2008, McConnell faced a tough opponent in wealthy Democratic businessman Bruce Lunsford amid a hostile national political climate for the GOP. Lunsford highlighted McConnell's ties to Bush and said the minority leader deserved blame for the country's economic woes; he spent millions of his personal fortune on attack ads that helped pull him head-to-head in polls in the campaign's closing weeks. McConnell, however, played up his leadership status and Appropriations seat as assets in bringing home plenty of federal funds. He outspent Lunsford by a 2-to-1 margin, and captured 53 percent of the vote.
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Following the speeches from elected officials, the crowd stands at long tables as they dig into BBQ, brunswick stew, cadillac rice at the Law Enforcement Cookout at Wayne Dasher's pond house in Glennville, Ga., on Thursday, April 17, 2014.