“Throwing grenades is easier than catching them.”
Senator John Thune of South Dakota, a fellow member of the Republican leadership
Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Before the health care fight, before the economic stimulus package, before President Obama even took office, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, had a strategy for his party: use his extensive knowledge of Senate procedure to slow things down, take advantage of the difficulties Democrats would have in governing and deny Democrats any Republican support on big legislation.
Republicans embraced it. Democrats denounced it as rank obstructionism. Either way, it has led the two parties, as much as any other factor, to where they are right now. Republicans are monolithically against the health care legislation, leaving the president and his party executing parliamentary back flips to get it passed, conservatives revived, liberals wondering what happened.
In the process, Mr. McConnell, 68, a Kentuckian more at home plotting tactics in the cloakroom than writing legislation in a committee room or exhorting crowds on the campaign trail, has come to embody a kind of oppositional politics that critics say has left voters cynical about Washington, the Senate all but dysfunctional and the Republican Party without a positive agenda or message.
But in the short run at least, his approach has worked. For more than a year, he pleaded and cajoled to keep his caucus in line. He deployed poll data. He warned against the lure of the short-term attention to be gained by going bipartisan, and linked Republican gains in November to showing voters they could hold the line against big government.
On the major issues — not just health care, but financial regulation and the economic stimulus package, among others — Mr. McConnell has held Republican defections to somewhere between minimal and nonexistent, allowing him to slow the Democratic agenda if not defeat aspects of it. He has helped energize the Republican base, expose divisions among Democrats and turn the health care fight into a test of the Democrats’ ability to govern.
“It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out,” Mr. McConnell said about the health legislation in an interview, suggesting that even minimal Republican support could sway the public. “It’s either bipartisan or it isn’t.”
Mr. McConnell said the unity was essential in dealing with Democrats on “things like the budget, national security and then ultimately, obviously, health care.”
Still, he said, his party had offered Democrats a chance for a deal on health care but blamed them as being inflexible. Democrats and the White House heavily courted Senator Olympia J. Snowe, Republican of Maine, who voted for an early version of the bill but later broke with Democrats. Democratic leaders, including the majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, said they did not think Republicans were ever serious about trying to strike a deal.
Even Mr. McConnell’s fellow Republicans say somewhat admiringly that he can be a secretive and coldly calculating tactician with an eye for political openings, someone more consumed by political strategy than ideology or philosophy.
He is in many ways the mirror image of his Democratic counterpart, Mr. Reid. Both are experts at the inside game who struggle with the burden of trying to control a political caucus at a time when legislative leaders no longer have the brute power they once had and senators are hailed for acting like mavericks.
“Mitch tends to play things close to the vest,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas.
The extent of Republican unity to date is attributable to some degree to Democratic missteps, as well as to the rise of the Tea Party movement, which has exerted tremendous pressure on Republicans not to do anything that might give comfort to the president and his party.
But it is also testimony to how Mr. McConnell has been able to draw on 25 years of Congressional savvy to display a mastery of legislative maneuvering. Mr. McConnell rejected the criticism that his approach is all about scoring political points by denying Mr. Obama any victories. His opposition, he said, is rooted in a principled belief that Mr. Obama is pushing the nation in the wrong direction.
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