WASHINGTON — Nearly 200 cartoons hang on Sen. Mitch McConnell’s office wall, each lampooning him for backing big money politics, vexing his foes and getting slammed through a basketball hoop by an airborne President Barack Obama.
At the halftime of Obama’s first term, McConnell is the one soaring. Last month’s elections that gave Republicans control of the House, more seats in the Senate and blew the Democrats into glum disarray gave McConnell, R-Ky., almost as much power over the government’s direction as the president himself.
The looming expiration of tax cuts provided an early opportunity to exploit that clout. The White House came to McConnell for a deal. Quietly, McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden, colleagues in the Senate for decades, hashed out an agreement balanced with big victories, tough concessions – and heartburn for all concerned.
“We have the deal,” McConnell told Biden.
“We are on,” Biden responded.
No player benefited more than McConnell.
Whatever its fate, the agreement moved the 68-year-old Senate minority leader beyond the agenda-blocking role that defined him the past two years. There’s now a fragile nexus between the Obama White House and congressional Republicans where there had been scant communication, a precedent for making policy together rather than standoffs.
The “Obama-McConnell” deal, as Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., derided it, put McConnell at the table with the president he has vowed to turn from office.
If the relationship holds, the Obama White House will be dealing with the Republicans’ most agile negotiator, stone-faced, governed by discipline and swathed in Southern gentility. McConnell is a conservative ideologue at heart who operates as leader with cold pragmatism and a lawyerly approach to persuasion.
“I don’t want the president to fail. I want him to change,” McConnell says in almost every public forum.
It’s worth noting that McConnell apparently has never aspired to Obama’s job, an uncommon quality among senators and one that helps remove doubt about his motives when he is locked in negotiations or rounding up votes, colleagues and former staffers say.
But he stands out in the Senate in other ways, too. He’s a stern tactician in a chamber of flamboyant public speakers. He revels in the cat-herding nature of the job, unlike his predecessor, Bill Frist of Tennessee, a surgeon practiced in life-and-death matters who was unfamiliar with the Senate.
McConnell is not given to hallway chitchat like the garrulous former Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, a former majority and minority leader; does not charm his colleagues with the wry humor of ex-Senate leader Bob Dole of Kansas. And tellingly, even those who frequently find themselves crosswise with McConnell on policy say he does not lean on them in the tradition of Lyndon Baines Johnson.
If the bespectacled senator has a style, it’s inscrutability.
“He listens,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, one of two moderate Republicans from Maine with extensive experience telling McConnell they can’t vote the way he would like. “I go through my reasoning, and he listens for the common ground.”
“He doesn’t threaten,” said the other Maine Republican, Sen. Susan Collins. “I would know.”
McConnell’s trademark is a discipline he attributes to his childhood battle to overcome polio and, at age 5, to walk. A subtle limp is the only outward sign of that struggle, a limitation that makes it easier for McConnell to travel up a staircase than down.
That uncommon focus threads through McConnell’s story, from his determination to play baseball and lead “a normal life” at the University of Louisville through law school at the University of Kentucky. Even now, when McConnell’s Louisville Cardinals are playing, “I’ve learned during football games not to talk to him,” chuckled his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
If McConnell’s discipline has been a constant, his operational style has changed with his role.
Elected to the Senate in 1984, he made a name for himself in the Senate as a conservative ideologue unafraid to sing the praises of big political donations and assail efforts to put restrictions on campaign fundraising and spending as infringements on free speech. Heated floor debates, particularly with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, culminated in 1994 with McConnell’s all-night filibuster of the campaign finance reform bill McCain had written with Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.
In October 1999, McConnell marshaled the senators needed to kill that year’s version of the McCain-Feingold bill – a notable enough victory for McConnell to hang the headlines on his wall, opposite dozens of newspaper cartoons deriding him for his defense of big money politics.
It’s a gallery of honor, McConnell-style.
“For Mitch, a life of adoration is not a life worth being proud of,” Chao told the Washington Post at the time. “He takes delight in frustrating his enemies. Their damnation becomes the highest praise.”
The remark reflected the pitched rhetoric of the time. Ralph Nader was calling McConnell the “worst senator.” Common Cause deemed him “Darth Vader of campaign finance reform.”
McConnell suggests that what’s changed is less him than his role. He does not, for example, dispute his wife’s characterization.
“‘Enemies’ is a strong word,” he allows.
“Mitch has a different role now,” Chao says. “He’s very much the coach of his team.”
As such, raw pragmatism – how Republican votes might fall for and against various proposals – rules McConnell’s work as his party’s leader in the Senate more than his own ideology, according to interviews with lawmakers and aides.
Even as President George W. Bush’s point man in the Senate, McConnell often sided instead with what was politically pragmatic. Some Republicans in 2007 complained that he had shrunk from the debate over the Iraq war and disappeared completely from the immigration debate in an effort to insulate himself from difficult issues and an unpopular president in his own re-election bid the next year. McConnell won a fifth Senate term then with 53 percent of the vote.
Fast-forward to the Senate’s first day back in business after this year’s midterm elections. Taking the floor, McConnell abandoned his longtime defense of pork-barrel earmarks in a bow to the prevailing voter hostility against special spending deals.
The tax cut agreement with Biden provides more examples. McConnell won Republicans bragging rights over its extension for tax cuts for all, even the rich, along with a generous estate tax breaks for the wealthy – provisions that have sparked a revolt among progressive Democrats.
But in doing so, he also signed off on the package’s ultimate, deficit-swelling cost, estimated at $850 billion over two years. That’s more than the Wall Street package savaged by many Republicans in the fall elections, also more than Obama’s signature stimulus program in 2009. It gives members of McConnell’s caucus – and probably McConnell himself – a degree of indigestion.
Yet in interviews this past week, Republican senators voiced no criticism of McConnell’s negotiating performance, even among the deal’s staunchest GOP critics.
“I think we’re all shocked at the sticker price,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “Aside from the policy itself, which I’m not saying grace over yet, the effort I greatly appreciate.”
Sen. Jim DeMint, who has said he’d vote against the deal as-is, nonetheless gave McConnell points.
“I think he got the best deal we could get,” said the South Carolina Republican.