Bennett Serves as ‘Consigliere’

Posted April 17, 2007 at 6:51pm

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) — Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) most trusted and valued ally in the Senate — traces their relationship back to, of all things, his first vote on a flag-burning amendment.

Although popular with much of the party’s rank and file, Bennett opposed the proposal because of free-speech concerns. While the novice lawmaker voted against the constitutional amendment, McConnell — a champion of First Amendment issues as well — previously had voted with his party for the amendment despite his own misgivings.

“McConnell, who had voted for it previously, said to me, ‘I knew when I walked off the floor that was the wrong vote, and I’m not going to do that again.’ Well that was kind of a bond because it turned out we were the only two conservative Republicans who voted against the flag amendment,” Bennett said.

Their relationship quickly grew, and Bennett became one of McConnell’s chief lieutenants in his fight against campaign reform, earning him the unofficial title of McConnell’s “consigliere.”

“We’re both First Amendment hawks … so we kind of gravitated towards each other on campaign finance reform,” Bennett said, explaining that McConnell “discovered he had a kind of soul mate in this very junior Senator from Utah and that kind of cemented our relationship.”

Bennett headed up McConnell’s campaign to become Majority Whip following the campaign finance fight, and thanks to his close personal and professional ties with Democrats he has proved critically important to McConnell, both as Whip and now as Minority Leader.

Bennett is an “extremely bright, capable guy. Someone once described him as the E.F. Hutton of the Senate — when he speaks, everyone listens,” McConnell said.

Bennett said he tries to avoid becoming bogged down in the often nasty political fighting of Washington, D.C. — for instance, he no longer appears on Sunday talk shows “because I’ve discovered all they want to do is yell at you.” Rather, Bennett said, he has focused his efforts on issues which, while important, may not be politically sexy enough to draw the attention of many other Senators. Avoiding the marquee issues of the day “leaves openings between issues that are important, but which the big guys are not paying attention to,” Bennett explained.

For instance, he played a central role in the late-1990s bailout of the Mexican government during the peso crisis. Likewise, his efforts to pass medical records confidentiality legislation in the ’90s became the framework for the Clinton administration’s reforms of the system. “It was a big, big issue, and no one was doing anything about it,” Bennett said.

Part of his success in these niche areas has been his willingness to work with Democrats. He and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) spearheaded the Senate’s efforts to address the Y2K problem years before anyone was seriously looking at the issue, and former President Bill Clinton praised Bennett in his memoirs for his efforts on the peso issue.

Those ties, as well as personal relationships with many Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), have made him one of the most trusted Republicans in Democratic circles.

“While we represent different views in the Senate, I have always found a steadfast friend in Sen. Bennett and I admire and respect how hard he works for the people of Utah. There is no more honorable Member of this body than Bob Bennett,” Reid said Tuesday.

Likewise, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has worked with Bennett on energy issues in the past and is now partnering with him on a package of tax cuts and health care reform, praised the Republican lawmaker.

Bennett’s “combination of common sense and brains and easy-to-be-with style is really just extraordinary,” Wyden said, adding that “I always look to him for counsel.”

“He’s also very good at developing relationships with Democrats,” said McConnell, who has been aided on more than one occasion by those ties both as Whip and Minority Leader.

That ability to keep partisanship out of his dealings with Democrats has been particularly helpful for McConnell when trying to determine where the other side is on an issue.

McConnell’s effort to maintain party loyalty while working with Democrats is difficult at best in these polarized times. And while Bennett is quick to point out that he does not act as a spy or agent of McConnell in working with Democrats, both men agree his insights have been key to McConnell’s success.

Bennett is “always one of the most reliable Members to talk to about where Democrats are,” McConnell said.

Bennett acknowledges that the current climate in Washington has led to a hardening of attitudes on both sides of the aisle, but he still believes there are opportunities for bipartisanship. While the advent of televised Senate floor debates has led to less personal interaction between Members who do not serve on committees together, Bennett said, he believes at the committee level Democrats and Republicans still are able to bridge divides and develop strong personal and professional relationships. Floor speeches are “written with an eye towards the home audience or re-election … [but] in committees, you still have a degree of cooperation and friendship that builds up,” Bennett said.