With GOP out of power, McConnell readies for new role

McClatchy NewspaperNovember 6, 2008 

U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell will return to Washington as the titular head of a party that has lost the presidency and seen its congressional ranks diminished.

The new Democrat-dominated federal government could take some getting used to, McConnell told Kentucky reporters in his first teleconference since his 53-47 point victory Tuesday over Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford.

"It will be different with a different party in the White House," he said. "I'll be playing a different role. And how that will all play out lies ahead in the future. And I'd rather not, today, speculate about that."

First, of course, he must be chosen again by his GOP Senate peers to be leader.

"I have overwhelming support and will be re-elected a week from Tuesday," he said. "That's one I'm certain of."

McConnell, whose tactical skill has drawn begrudging nods of admiration from some Democrats during his first four terms in office, must now regroup and might have to employ different strategies. With a caucus of 49, McConnell was able to slow down or, in some cases, halt Democratic bills through the use of parliamentary procedures.

A group of 41 or more senators can filibuster legislation to force compromise or kill the legislation — something McConnell boasted about on the campaign trail, while Republicans hailed him as the "firewall" to Democratic proposals.

That could change as he decides how to best negotiate with the Obama administration and a more powerful Democratic congressional majority, observers say. Democrats now have a 56-40 majority in the Senate, with four races from Tuesday still undecided.

"McConnell is a good strategist and tactician. He's not going to pick a lot of fights he can't win," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "Part of it is how welcoming or not Democrats are. I think it's something Obama wants to do but he has to have the support of the Democratic leaders in Congress."

U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky., said he expects Obama to try to govern to the middle and that Republicans in the House and Senate will feel compelled to go along.

"I think Obama will offer proposals that will make so much sense to the middle class and the regular people in this country that it would force Republicans to move so far to the right in order to oppose it," he said. "And I don't think they'll do that."

Chandler, a conservative Democrat who has worked with McConnell on Kentucky issues such as the destruction of chemical weapons at the Blue Grass Army Depot, said he expects McConnell to "react well" to a centrist approach.

"It's clear that the American people sent a message Tuesday night. And Sen. McConnell was among those whom the message was sent to. People want a change in policy," he said.

McConnell is savvy enough to realize that the climate in Washington has changed, said Norman Ornstein, a veteran congressional analyst and scholar at American Enterprise Institute.

"He's going to have to assess the lay of the land when he gets there," Ornstein said. "He was king of the filibuster and he's also the guy who ... brokered bipartisan agreement on the ($700 billion Wall Street) bailout."

But McConnell remained guarded Wednesday about the Senate Republicans' approach to the upcoming administration.

"As to how much support there will be on the Republican side, I think it will depend in large measure on the direction the administration takes, and I think it is much too early," McConnell said. "They haven't even started naming people to cabinet positions."

He added that the GOP caucus will support those appointments, providing that he presents "qualified candidates."

McConnell said he didn't know Obama well but called him "an impressive individual" who is "easy to like, personally."

"He ran a great race, and I intend to have a good relationship with him," he said.

As the chief legislative strategist for a reduced Republican Party, McConnell will often have to walk a fine line, said D. Stephen Voss, associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky.

"He's got to find the balance between filibustering too much and too little," he said. "If he tries to obstruct too often, he risks having the Republican slide get worse."

At the same time, the party could look weak if members allow Democrats to get their way too often, Voss added.

"He's got to find the fights that will remind moderate voters why they want Republicans in Washington counterbalancing the Democrats."

Being the Washington Republican standard-bearer probably wasn't "a role he was seeking," said Duffy of the Cook Report. "Doesn't mean he can't do it, but he's a behind-the-scenes person. There'll be a very strategic approach to the way he conducts Republican business in the senate and they will try to work with Obama when they can."

To some degree, his role will be determined by how many other Republicans join McConnell in the Senate. Democrats, who held a slim advantage going into Tuesday, bolstered their numbers with five pickups.

Among four seats that remain undecided Wednesday is the Georgia race, where GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss finished slightly ahead of Democrat Jim Martin. But because a Libertarian candidate received at least 3 percent of votes, Chambliss might not have received 50 percent, which would force a runoff. McConnell said he would be "deeply involved" to help Chambliss in a runoff.

Another seat hanging in the balance was that of Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, who was clinging to a 3,000-vote lead a week after being convicted of lying on federal financial disclosure forms.

McConnell, who said last week that Stevens should resign his seat or risk expulsion, said Wednesday that the Senate ethics committee would have to decide whether to immediately remove Stevens or wait until the senator exhausts his appeals process.

With his own re-election, McConnell will become the longest serving U.S. Senator in Kentucky history after defeating Lunsford, a wealthy Louisville businessman, by nearly 107,000 votes. His 953,603 votes were the most ever received by a Kentucky candidate.

"I thought given the tsunami coming in the face of Republicans across the country, winning by a comfortable margin against substantial opposition was pretty exciting," he said.

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