McConnell Shows Strength in Storm

Posted September 18, 2009 at 6:11pm

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.).

McConnell’s other strategic move was encouraging GOP negotiators to take their time in crafting complicated changes to health care policy, making the case that a quick debate would not be good for the nation — or for Republicans.

That appeared to work, as Grassley, Enzi and Snowe each criticized Democratic leaders for setting unrealistic timelines for reaching an agreement. Hatch dropped out of talks early on, but Grassley, Enzi and Snowe helped keep negotiations with Baucus open for more than three months until they broke down last week when Baucus unveiled his bill.

The delays ended up being critical, because they prevented Senate Democrats from bringing up a bill before the August recess, during which Republican attacks successfully drove down public support for Democratic health care plans.

Now, as the Finance Committee gets ready to mark up a health care reform bill this week, McConnell has thrown himself into strategizing with Finance Republicans on which amendments to offer during this week’s bill markup. And it appears that Grassley will take a lead role in attacking a measure that he helped craft over those many months of talks.

“What you have in McConnell is a leader that is willing to get into the trenches with his troops,— Downey said.

Democrats’ only hope of bipartisanship during the markup is Snowe — a leading moderate — and Republicans acknowledge that no amount of pressure or cajoling on their part is likely to sway her either way.

But even as Snowe says she remains open to negotiations with Democrats, she also attended Thursday’s amendment strategy session with McConnell and other Finance Republicans.

When McConnell was running for re-election during the 2008 cycle, aides said there was a perception among some in the Conference that he was not willing to stick his neck out on major issues — most notably immigration reform. But since winning a tough race last year with 53 percent of the vote, McConnell has impressed even his critics with how he’s handled the seemingly intractable health care debate.

And though McConnell is not one for theatrical speeches or political gimmicks, he has been relentless this year in staking out his positions on the Sunday talk shows and on the floor of the Senate — and often he’s the first Republican to do so.

For weeks this spring, McConnell appeared on the floor every morning to excoriate President Barack Obama’s decision to close the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, military prison by January 2010. When the issue finally came to a head on the supplemental war spending bill, Senate Republicans scored a victory in getting Democrats not only to cut money for the prison’s closure but also to bar detainees from being transferred to U.S. prisons.

McConnell has employed the same floor tactics on health care reform.

“Through a series of speeches, he helped define the way people were talking about the Democratic health care plans,— the first senior Senate GOP aide said. “That formed the backbone of a lot of the [Republican] message.—

Even Democrats grudgingly acknowledged that McConnell has been successful in keeping his troops aligned and denying them a bipartisan health care bill so far.

“Sen. McConnell and the rest of his leadership team have played their cards very well,— one senior Senate Democratic aide said. “They made the calculation long ago that if they stalled long enough, the president’s record high approval ratings would fall to more typical levels. And in August, they did.—

Still, Democrats say they see political peril for Republicans in the tactics McConnell and others are using.

“The problem is, in a time of great economic uncertainty, they’re betting on this president to fail,— the senior Senate Democratic aide said. “But any time you’re playing to a base — in this case, a far-right base — you know you’re in trouble. … The more they become identified with the far-right fringe, the more likely it is that this will blow up in their face.—