WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has emerged as one of the most powerful challengers to President Barack Obama's uphill battle to craft bipartisan agreement on a health care overhaul.
Even as the Kentucky Republican lawmaker sat at the big table in Blair House during Thursday's televised health care summit, he expressed deep skepticism that Obama will be able to win Republican support for his proposals.
"It's hard to imagine what the purpose of Thursday's summit is," he'd said earlier. "If the White House wants real bipartisanship, then it needs to drop the proposal it posted Monday — which is no different in its essentials than anything we've seen before — and start over."
McConnell and Kentucky's largely Republican congressional delegation are unimpressed by the president's attempts to resuscitate his ailing health care agenda. Republicans oppose the $950 billion proposal Obama unveiled Monday, saying that he pulled farther away from them by proposing to spend more than did earlier versions that the Senate and the House of Representatives passed last year.
Before the summit got under way, McConnell took to the Senate floor nearly every day this week to express his ire and denounce "grand schemes imposed from above."
"As we meet here in Washington this week, unemployment continues to hover around 10 percent, tens of millions of Americans are struggling to make ends meet, the national debt is at a staggering all-time high, and in response to all this, the administration wants lawmakers to go down to the White House to talk about a health care bill that Americans have already resoundingly rejected," McConnell said.
As the head of a caucus that's clawing its way back to a place of leverage, McConnell has the difficult task of navigating his party through the historic health care debate while ensuring that it isn't steamrolled in the process.
His skill as a parliamentary tactician has long earned him grudging nods of respect across the aisle and as a "survivor" who's done a good job of keeping his caucus together, said James Thurber, the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington.
"A third of the Senate are (former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) Republicans," Thurber said. "They came up through the House and they are people who believe in a scorched-earth approach to politics, using wedge issues to keep issues alive to the next election. McConnell has adapted to it. He's not charismatic, he's careful. He's not the best spokesman for the party, but he listens to them and gives them what they want."
Under McConnell's leadership during the 111th Congress, Republicans have attempted to filibuster — block legislation by defeating efforts to cut off debate — more than 30 times.
McConnell, who for years wielded the filibuster relentlessly, had worried that the 60-member Democratic majority would fast-track much of Obama's agenda through Congress. However, his political fortunes changed once Republican Scott Brown won the Massachusetts seat last month that the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy had held for 47 years. Democrats now control 59 of the 100 Senate seats, and they need 60 votes to shut off debate.
The changed political landscape, coupled with poll findings that the Democratic health care bills are unpopular, gives McConnell leverage, and the White House knows it, said Ross Baker, an expert on Congress at Rutgers University.
"They start from the premise that what the president and Senate bill is proposing is a radical expansion of the government in the area of health insurance and it's something the Republicans feel duty-bound to oppose," Baker said. "The national opinion polls are on their side. The president, coming out of this, is really going to have to do the heavy lifting. He's got a huge job of salesmanship. He's got to be a missionary of this thing."
After the summit, McConnell indicated that Republicans weren't swayed by the day's talks and would fight the president's proposal.
"I would not call it a waste of time," McConnell said. "It was a good discussion. We think the best way for this to be resolved is to pay attention to the people who sent us here that are saying to us overwhelmingly, 'Do not pass this bill.' "
(Steven Thomma and David Lightman contributed to this report.)
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