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New Congress: Are Republicans honing their inner 'institutionalist'?

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP

(Read caption) Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky., with Senate minority whip John Cornyn (R) of Texas (r.) and Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming (l.) talks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday.

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“Institutionalist.” It’s a frequently used term for a veteran member of Congress who fervently believes in upholding its traditions and customs, even at the risk of alienating younger colleagues and outsiders clamoring for drastic change.

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, who now directs the Center on Congress at Indiana University, defined an institutionalist as “a member who puts the institution of Congress first. Who welcomes responsibility for making it work; who pushes his or her colleagues to fulfill their constitutional obligations; who respects the role and history of Congress in forging this country's history. “

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Congress’s two top Republicans, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, are the lawmakers who most often get the tag. McConnell came to Capitol Hill in 1985 and Boehner arrived in 1991, an era when partisan acrimony in the legislative branch was far, far less pervasive.

"Both Boehner and McConnell are known as institutionalists and dealmakers who want to make things work,” former Rep. Steve LaTourette (R) of Ohio, a onetime ally of the speaker who’s now a lobbyist, recently told Gannett Ohio.

When Republicans called last year for a closer look at the deadly 2012 attacks at US facilities in Benghazi, Libya, Politico reported: “Some conservatives had publicly pressed GOP leadership for a select committee, but Boehner – ever the institutionalist – was reluctant to go that far. His natural tendency is to let the committees do their own work.” The speaker eventually relented, however, and a select committee was created.

McConnell used to regularly be described as an institutionalist before Barack Obama became president. Then he became, in the eyes of most Democrats, an obstructionist who was far more interested in rendering the Senate dysfunctional.

Since last November’s election, though, journalists have brought back the i-word to describe the crafty Kentuckian, who as a longtime member of the Appropriations Committee was versed in the finer points of negotiation. “McConnell … is an institutionalist, and knows how to legislate and cut deals,” CNN’s Jake Tapper wrote on his blog.

With Republicans now eager to prove to the world that they can get legislation passed and onto Obama’s desk, the word may be picking up even broader currency. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R) of North Carolina, who as the House GOP’s chief deputy whip, will be one of the architects of getting any bills through, recently told The Wall Street Journal: “I bring a mix of rabble-rouser and institutionalist.”

Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Decoder Voices.