WASHINGTON — If it seems as if the political maneuvering over health care legislation has resembled a championship-level chess match, consider that one of the major players, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is widely acknowledged as a preternaturally skilled tactician.
For his part, the Kentucky Republican has been uncharacteristically forthcoming about his strategy on the health care bill — kill it, rather than try to negotiate something more palatable to Republicans — and acknowledges that early on he set about trying to block key Obama-administration efforts.
While Democrats may see such efforts as obstructionist, McConnell — as the head of a caucus that's clawing its way back to a place of leverage — makes no apologies for how he navigated his party through the historic health care debate.
He vows that Democrats will come to rue their efforts on the issue come fall.
"I can tell you with regard to the campaign that will continue with the American people, I think the slogan will be, 'Repeal and replace. Repeal and replace,' " McConnell said earlier this week. "No one that I know in the Republican conference in the Senate believes that no action is appropriate. We all think there are things that should be done."
What followed as the Senate considered the final piece of landmark health care legislation this week was a GOP-led "vote-a-rama," a series of nonstop votes that lasted until 2:45 a.m. Thursday. Republicans tried to insert changes, forcing votes on 40 amendments or procedural points, including a ban on using federal funds to provide erectile dysfunction drugs to sex offenders.
Democrats rejected each on party-line votes Wednesday and Thursday. Later Thursday, the Senate passed the final piece of legislation that's intended to change dramatically how most Americans buy, use and maintain health insurance coverage.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate's Democratic leadership and the White House have felt near apoplectic over what they see as an exercise in blanket obstructionism.
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 has wielded the filibuster relentlessly, had worried that the then-60-member Democratic Senate majority would fast-track much of President Barack Obama's agenda through Congress. However, his fortunes changed once Republican Scott Brown won the Massachusetts seat 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.
"Whether or not (Republicans) are willing to put aside Senator McConnell's plan to oppose everything and seek to be part of a governing solution, we'll just have to see," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said earlier this week.
Last week, Democratic operatives stepped up efforts to paint the senior Kentucky senator as an obstructionist for his continued opposition to the health care overhaul and most of the rest of the Obama administration's agenda. A Democratic National Committee memo circulating on Capitol Hill advised Democratic lawmakers and staffers to highlight McConnell's tactics and question whether he's interested in reaching bipartisan solutions or in scoring points for his party.
However, McConnell's laser-like focus on staying on message, coupled with his highly effective efforts at keeping his caucus in line during the health care debate, has helped create a huge opportunity for Republicans this fall, Ross Baker, an expert on Congress at Rutgers University, said recently.
"This is another question McConnell has to answer: how vigorously does he go out and attempt to undercut implementation. Will he say, 'We lost,' and move on to other things but lead a post-conflict insurrection against health care reform?" Baker said. "Any effort to undercut the health care reform once it's passed will set up a demand for repeal. That happened in the case of catastrophic health insurance reform efforts in the 1980s. The chairman of Ways and Means (Committee) had his car mobbed by a bunch of citizens. I refuse to believe the tea party folks are going to dissolve into despair and drift away. It may energize them."
Heading into the fall elections, as insurance companies go into the policy renewal season, Republicans will ramp up the discussion of what this bill really means for Americans, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report.
"It's a giant chessboard, and you always have to think three steps ahead," she said. "Republicans' interpretation of this bill and what it means could mean problems for Democrats, in that they won't have a lot of examples of where this worked out."
McConnell is keenly aware of all these facts, and his comments increasingly have been directed at the electorate.
"With all due respect, you don't pass a bill the American people didn't want, then try to sell them on it. You win their support first, then pass it, on a bipartisan basis, just as we've done on every other piece of major social legislation we've passed over the past 45 years," McConnell said on the Senate floor earlier this week, just after the president signed the health care bill into law. "... So Democrats here in Washington can celebrate all they want, but that celebration is going to be short-lived. The American people aren't fooled."
(David Lightman contributed to this article.)
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