As Obama's honeymoon wanes, McConnell sees an opening

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 31, 2009 

WASHINGTON — When he appeared before the National Press Club in January, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell joked that his desire to work in a bipartisan manner with President Barack Obama might seem to some like an insurance agent hoping for an earthquake.

It didn't take long for the tremors to start.

Since then, McConnell has sharply criticized the president's $3.55 trillion budget proposal, saying that it would create a higher deficit than Cuba's, and accused Obama of going "pretty far left" and trying to turn the country into Western Europe. McConnell voted against the president's $787 billion economic stimulus plan and an expansion of the state children's health insurance program. He opposed the president's picks for attorney general and treasury secretary and the administration's decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

McConnell and fellow Republicans say they see the hard line as necessary to ensure that bad policies are blocked. The Kentucky lawmaker says he talks with Obama often and isn't shy about expressing disappointment over what he sees as an unprecedented expansion of government.

"We have plenty of conversations. I'm going to say I'm disappointed after two months," McConnell told CNN's John King on Sunday. "The president has not governed in the middle, as I had hoped he would, but it's not too late. He's only been in office a couple months. Still before him are the opportunities to deal with us on a bipartisan basis."

In the meantime, the Democratic National Committee dubbed McConnell the leader of the "party of no" and accused him of pushing an obstructionist agenda in an effort to score political points.

Political experts say that McConnell's change in tone tracks with the low hum of discontent among some of the electorate over Obama's approach to the economic crisis. Though the president still has a roughly 60 percent approval rating, his popularity has slipped a few notches in the past month, according to a summary of national polling data compiled by the Web site RealClearPolitics.

McConnell "has been around a long time and he understands the seasons of politics," said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "The Obama administration's honeymoon season is waning and it's easier to criticize him now. Obama has made a number of controversial moves, and McConnell has gone through the door that was left open."

In Washington, McConnell is seen as a brilliant tactician who's used the filibuster effectively over the past decade to block legislation he opposed. Last year, during heated negotiations over a Democratic-backed global warming measure, he brought the proceedings to a standstill after calling for all 492 pages of the bill to be read aloud.

However, now that the Republicans hold only 41 of the 100 Senate seats, McConnell has found his filibuster power diminished.

When he opposed the president's stimulus plan, the five-term senator was forced to watch as moderate Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania joined Democrats in helping to shape and pass the legislation.

Meanwhile, McConnell says that the Democratic majority routinely blocks Republican amendments, and he's convinced many in his caucus to push back.

Still, there's room for compromise on such issues as Social Security restructuring. In 2006, as his party reeled from stinging campaign losses, McConnell said that he hoped to forge an alliance with new Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that would result in lasting changes to Social Security policy and land the two men in the history books for their bipartisan efforts.

Likewise, the Obama administration's renewed push in Afghanistan gives McConnell hope that the two sides can find common ground.

"I think the president is adopting a policy that gives us a chance to succeed," McConnell said. "Are we going to be able to turn Afghanistan into a Western-style democracy? No. Can we stabilize the country and protect America from another attack? I think so. I think the policy the president is pursuing is likely to be supported by virtually all Republicans."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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