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A taciturn tactician, McConnell’s leadership draws respect – and ire

Republicans and Democrats agree that Sen. Mitch McConnell’s political tenure has tracked with a hyperpartisan environment in Congress. They diverge over the extent to which his actions may be responsible for it.

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Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky addressed reporters June 5, saying that he intends to cancel the traditional August recess and keep the Senate in session to deal with backlogged tasks.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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In January, when former Senate majority leader Bob Dole of Kansas was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, his fellow Republican, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, offered a tribute.

Senator Dole showed that “principles and pragmatism are not opposites, but complements,” said Senator McConnell. He praised the son of the Dust Bowl and Depression for breaking a stalemate to save Social Security, and for “reaching across the aisle” to help pass landmark legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act. As leader of the Republican majority in the 1980s and ’90s, Dole could often be found in the Democratic cloak room, seated in an overstuffed chair, working out deals with the opposition.

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In many ways, the contrast between the two men is striking.

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As he officially surpasses Dole as the longest-serving leader of the Senate GOP, at 11 years, five months, and ten days, one of McConnell’s most important daily tasks is to count his own members. With only 51 in a 100-member body – and with a strategy that depends heavily on Republican unity – even one defection or absence can upset the apple cart.

Dole, although an adept partisan, was known as a bridge-builder with Democrats. McConnell became famous for blocking them. Since Republicans gained complete control in Washington with the election of President Trump, McConnell has moved like a steamroller, taking advantage of Senate rules – and changing a key one – to push through tax cuts, roll back regulations, and fill a Supreme Court vacancy through votes that required only a simple majority to pass.

The difference speaks in part to a shift in the makeup of the parties. Dole’s leadership came toward the end of an era when the parties were themselves ideologically divided, making the middle a natural place to do business. Today, both parties are more homogeneous – and members are often more concerned with fending off primary challenges than appealing to the center.

“Senator McConnell has operated in a much more polarized atmosphere,” observes former Senate historian Don Ritchie. “Pretty much everyone in his conference is to the right, some to the far right, and pretty much everyone in the Democratic conference is to the left or far left.” 

Republicans and Democrats agree that the unflappable Kentuckian has been an effective party leader, with a strategic mind that views legislating like a game of three-dimensional chess. He has moved his party’s agenda forward despite occasional jabs from an unpredictable and tweeting president – the stylistic opposite of the steady McConnell, who guards every word he utters.

“He has the complete support of the conference,” says Sen. John Boozman (R) of Arkansas, who lauds McConnell for a “very, very good job” navigating turbulent waters. 

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There is less agreement over whether McConnell’s leadership has also been good for the Senate – and, by extension, the country.

“Senator McConnell has been an extremely effective and powerful Republican leader, but he has not been a Senate leader,” says Ira Shapiro, author of the new book “Broken: Can the Senate Save Itself and the Country?”

Senate leaders are supposed to work with all senators and presidents of either party and create “a climate of trust, mutual respect, and bipartisanship, and in that regard, he’s failed on every account,” says Mr. Shapiro, a former senior Senate staffer and trade negotiator for President Bill Clinton.

Shapiro argues against the view that McConnell simply reflects today’s hyperpartisan times. He says the GOP leader played a big role in shaping the current environment on Capitol Hill by “routinely” bypassing opportunities to work with Democrats.

The most striking example of purely partisan obstruction, he says, was McConnell’s effort, as minority leader, to line up Republicans against President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus of 2009. Yet months earlier, under GOP President George W. Bush, McConnell had worked hard to pass legislation shoring up the financial industry.

“He understood the stakes,” says Shapiro, calling the about-face “shameful.” Were it not for three Republicans who broke ranks and voted with the Democrats, “we might still be in a depression.”

Patience and determination

McConnell rose to the leadership and brought Republicans back to the majority through patience and determination – qualities he learned as a very young child overcoming polio. In his memoir, “The Long Game,” he describes his mother exercising his leg – but not allowing him to walk, per nurses’ orders – for two long years.

After more than 30 years in the Senate, he knows its rules inside and out. That, along with an ability to keep his sometimes-unruly ranks in line, has helped him push through the GOP agenda. Indeed, McConnell has been elected leader six times by Republicans without anyone ever running against him.

“I think what McConnell does better than anyone, and it’s one of the secrets to his longevity, is pretty quickly diagnosing the political reality, and charting a path that can unite his membership behind a plan to improve their lot,” says Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff and campaign manager.

When Republicans won back the Senate in 2014, McConnell initially moved to restore the chamber to its more deliberative days. He opened up the floor to amendments and free-wheeling debate and returned legislating to the committees, where senators can still work across the aisle. A brief period of significant bipartisan legislating followed, on issues from education to highways to trade. He won kudos from members of both parties.

“Mitch is a straight shooter,” says Sen. Chris Murphy (D) of Connecticut. At odds with McConnell over guns and other issues, Senator Murphy says that when he has had bipartisan bills he wanted to get to the floor, the majority leader has been candid about what steps he needed to take. “When I did the things he told me to do, he found a way to get the bill on the floor, or include it in something else.” He names a mental health measure as an example.

The Supreme Court bombshell

But then came a bombshell. Over President’s Day weekend in February 2016, the nation learned that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had suddenly died. Without consulting anyone else in his caucus, McConnell announced that the Senate would not confirm a replacement until after a new president had been elected. When then-President Obama put forward Judge Merrick Garland as a consensus nominee, Republicans denied him a hearing.

For many Democrats, the Garland blockade stands out among actions by McConnell that have done “enormous damage to the Senate as an institution,” says Jim Manley, former spokesman for the now retired Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada. “He made up a rule to prevent a Democratic president from even having a hearing on a Supreme Court nominee…. It’s something that Democrats are never going to forget.”

McConnell and his supporters don’t see it that way. They point to his pragmatism in crisis, negotiating with then-Vice President Joe Biden to bring the country back from the “fiscal cliff” of tax hikes and spending cuts in 2012, for instance. “He wasn’t an avid obstructionist when it comes to things like personnel,” as today’s Democrats have been with Mr. Trump’s nominees, says Mr. Holmes.

As for opposing Obama agenda items such as the Affordable Care Act and economic stimulus, McConnell simply saw them as too liberal and too much government for a center-right nation. Opposition here was “essential,” says Holmes, not only to block bad policy, but to unite the Republican minority, clearly delineate its values, and begin charting a path back to the majority. As McConnell is so fond of saying, “you can’t make policy if you don’t win the election.”

McConnell supporters also argue that he was simply responding to earlier obstruction by Senator Reid – who had clamped down on floor amendments and, in 2013, unilaterally changed the Senate rules to no longer require a 60-vote threshold for nominees other than to the Supreme Court, the so-called nuclear option.

Republican senators are pleased with their party’s accomplishments of the past year. But even some of them are grumbling about a noticeable decline in Senate debate and votes on amendments – which are an opportunity to get ideas out on the floor, and for senators to show their constituents that they are on the job.

“I was sent up here to debate and decide. I was not sent up here to delay and stultify,” Sen. John Kennedy (R) of Louisiana told a handful of reporters as senators were heading for home last week. “I would just put everything on the floor and let everybody offer whatever amendments they want to, and… let’s vote!”

Another Republican, who did not want to be named, complains that the Senate is ceding too much power to the president. Immigration and trade are two recent examples. “Too often we simply say we won’t pass anything that doesn’t have the president’s support,” the senator says. “Sometimes the only way you get the president’s support is to pass something.”

McConnell now is on a mission to clear spending bills and get the president’s nominees confirmed, particularly in the judiciary. Despite Democrats slowing down the process, the Senate has confirmed a record number of federal judges under Trump, as compared to any other president at this stage in his tenure.

The man who spent his entire life working to get this job does not plan to give it up any time soon. And as long as he holds it, says Holmes, he’ll continue to focus like a laser on areas where he can have the greatest impact – such as the judiciary – and “spend zero time wringing his hands about things he can’t control.”

When your party controls both Congress and the White House, “your goal is not to wind through an endless debate of ideas. Your goal is to try to enact what you can get the most people to agree on – and move on.”