Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has nearly within his grasp the job he’s dreamed for decades of achieving, that of majority leader of the U.S. Senate.
The Republicans appear likely to seize control of the Senate from the Democrats in the Nov. 4 midterm elections. If that happens and McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, wins his own race for re-election, he is expected to ascend to lead the Senate.
“There’s no question that this is the ultimate goal of his life,” said former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. “He’ll want to do something with it if he gets it.”
McConnell is asserting a “great likelihood” that he will be majority leader and is using it as a reason voters should choose him in his close race against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, saying recently, “The majority leader gets to set the agenda not only for the country but to look after Kentucky’s interests.”
“Every senator has one vote,” he recently told a Kentucky crowd. “But every senator doesn’t have equal influence.”
There are big questions, though, about which version of McConnell would show up to lead the Senate: the pragmatic deal maker or the partisan whose feuds the past several years with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have helped define the most dysfunctional Congress of modern times.
There are also doubts about how effective McConnell could be at getting any agenda through. He likely would be running a Senate with just a razor-thin Republican majority, riven by internal divisions between tea party acolytes and centrists over issues such as spending and immigration.
Even if McConnell can somehow keep the Senate Republicans united, they still won’t have the 60 Senate votes needed to defeat a Democratic filibuster and get major legislation through – much less the 67 votes to overturn a veto by President Barack Obama.
“Other than maybe the Keystone pipeline, what else can McConnell and Republicans really do?” asked Tripp Baird, a former strategist at the conservative Heritage Action for America.
A worry for conservatives, he said, is whether McConnell, faced with the political realities of the Senate, would shift into the deal-maker role and end up doing “what Democrats want them to do and call it a victory.”
McConnell, 72, is a creature of the Senate. While in college he interned for a Kentucky senator, then worked as an aide for another, and then spent the past 30 years there after winning his first election by just four-tenths of a percentage point. Taciturn, with a poker face that’s impossible to read, McConnell is known as a skilled tactician and, until the election of Obama at least, as more a pragmatist than a partisan.
“If you look over McConnell’s legislative history, he’s usually been more comfortable as the inside deal maker,” said Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky.
That included crafting deals with Reid for major legislation such as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which helped save the financial industry in 2008, and assistance for the beleaguered auto industry.
But as the Reid-McConnell relationship degenerated into bitter personal attacks in recent years, there was little compromising in the Senate and not much accomplished. Even deals between McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden, to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” and default on the debt, took the nation to the brink and were more temporary reprieves than grand bargain.
McConnell, as Republican minority leader, transformed how the rules are used in the Senate through “the use of the filibuster as a weapon of mass obstruction,” said Norm Ornstein, a centrist scholar on politics and Congress at the American Enterprise Institute.
“It was used not just on a small number of issues where there are intense differences between the parties, but on the vast majority of nominations – including those that ultimately passed unanimously or near unanimously – and on almost every bill,” he said.
Ornstein said that partisan hardball casts doubt on McConnell’s claim earlier this year that if he is in charge, the Senate would “break sharply from the practices of the Reid era,” with an open amendment process in which senators from both parties can weigh in.
McConnell laid out a more confrontational vision at a private gathering organized by the billionaire Koch brothers in June. He said that as majority leader he’d attack Obama’s policies through spending bills, including targeting the Environmental Protection Agency he blames for holding back the Kentucky coal industry.
“I assure you that in the spending bill, we will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what’s called placing riders in the bill. No money can be spent to do this or to do that. We’re going to go after them on health care, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board. All across the federal government, we’re going to go after it,” he said in a leaked audio recording.
But – even if McConnell could use a budget tactic to circumvent a Democratic filibuster of such a move – he’d risk a politically damaging government shutdown.
“If I’m Obama I’m going to say, ‘Bring it on,’” Ornstein said. “‘I’ll veto those bills and I’ll go out to the country and say, here they go again, you put them in charge and look at what they are doing, they are shutting down the government,’” Ornstein said.
McConnell, on the campaign trail, has focused on how he’ll be able to look out for Kentucky as majority leader. John David Dyche, an attorney and conservative columnist in Louisville, said McConnell already has been effective at using his clout as minority leader, and he doubts the new job would result in a lot of difference for home-state interests.
“I think it would be marginally more beneficial for Kentucky because he would be in an even better position to use his clout,” said Dyche, who wrote a 2009 authorized biography of McConnell. “I don’t think that would be a huge change from what’s happening now.”
Dyche said he believes McConnell as majority leader would want to work with both parties to get things accomplished, but that it would be up to the other Republican senators how much he’d be able to do so.
“He’s wanted this position for a long time, he has a big sense of history,” said Dyche. “He’s very much, as George Will said, marinated in the Senate as an institution. I think he’s not really interested in being excessively partisan if he were to become majority leader.”
Dyche argued that McConnell’s tactics as minority leader, “to the extent he was very partisan,” were largely a reaction to how Reid and the Democrats ran the Senate.
Alec MacGillis, senior editor at the New Republic, took a dimmer view of McConnell in his new e-book about the Kentucky senator, titled “T he Cynic.” MacGillis said his research and interviews, including with McConnell allies, convinced him that McConnell’s overriding motivation is simply to win elections.
McConnell made the calculation as minority leader that obstruction would lead to the Democrats and Obama being blamed for a dysfunctional Senate because they are in control, MacGillis said. But that political calculus could change for McConnell if the Republicans take charge of the Senate, he said, and McConnell starts planning for the 2016 elections.
Lott, the former Republican majority leader from Mississippi and now a lobbyist in Washington, said he expects McConnell would come out in deal-maker mode. Majority leader would be a much different role than he’s been playing now, Lott said, and there would be a lot of challenges.
“He would need to look for some things to move that are generally broad, bipartisan issues,” Lott said. “They may not be big but they can set the tone and the tempo.”