WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's firm opposition to a bailout for the Big Three automakers in the face of mounting White House pressure might serve as an indication of how the de facto head of a significantly weakened caucus might deal with President-elect Barack Obama's administration.
The Kentucky Republican's behind-the-scenes maneuvering on the legislation — at times negotiating in a bipartisan manner, but changing course as his caucus in the Senate voiced opposition — offered a glimpse of how McConnell, a veteran lawmaker lauded for his tactical skill, operates.
"This may be a harbinger of things to come," said Norm Ornstein, veteran political analyst and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "In this case, McConnell and (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid) really did try to negotiate a bipartisan agreement.
"But it's going to be a different role for McConnell than in the 110th (Congress), where it was about the use of filibuster. We'll see more examples of using the 60-vote hurdle to force a bipartisan compromise," rather than just to kill a bill.
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During his tough re-election bid against Louisville businessman Bruce Lunsford, McConnell, who narrowly won a fifth Senate term, campaigned on the idea that his clout and experience provides a necessary firewall against unfavorable legislation.
Political analysts said that in November, after failed attempts to broker a bipartisan accord on an automaker bailout, McConnell surveyed the political terrain and calculated his next move.
With 49 Republican senators, there were still enough members of his party's caucus to wield his well-used power of filibuster should discussions sour. President George W. Bush's pending departure and weakened public support, coupled with Obama's preoccupation with cabinet appointments and the transition, created a power vacuum, said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"McConnell is the kind of the politician who pokes and prods until he finds a weak spot," Sabato said. "The weak spot here was the power vacuum, and this was an ideal moment for a large minority in the Senate to stop something from happening. He killed it. That was his goal."
The measure was defeated 52-35 on Thursday night in the Senate when it fell short of the 60 votes it needed.
After the vote, McConnell, who hails from a state that trails only Michigan and Ohio in the number of autos it produces, said he felt the bill didn't serve taxpayers best. He said that the United Auto Workers' refusal to reduce wages by sometime in 2009 to reach parity with foreign automakers' U.S. plants doomed support for a bailout. Republican opposition to labor unions was at the crux of the ongoing opposition to the bailout.
"The sticking point that we are left with is the question of whether the UAW is willing to agree to a parity pay structure with other manufacturers in this country by a date certain. . . . It is upon that issue that we've reached an impasse," McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday. ". . . None of us want to see (American automakers) go down, but very few of us had anything to do with the dilemma that they've created for themselves."
Kentucky has two Ford plants in Louisville, a Toyota factory in Georgetown and a GM plant in Bowling Green.
For years, Southern states have offered generous tax incentives to foreign automotive companies in return for building facilities in the region and hiring local workers. The South's lower wages and weaker support for unions was also a draw, and the region is home to a number of foreign automakers and domestic suppliers, as well as to the Republican lawmakers who led the opposition to the bailout.
This week, as discussion stalled over the creation of a "car czar" with broad authority over how the federal aid would be spent and how the auto companies would revamp themselves, Republicans raised questions about the extent of the overseer's authority and insisted on stronger action against car companies that get the money but still don't regain long-term financial health.
During this week's Republican policy lunch with lawmakers, McConnell encouraged Tennessee's junior senator, Bob Corker — a former Chattanooga mayor and a millionaire businessman — to put forth an alternative proposal he crafted that called for the UAW to agree to employee pay cuts.
On Thursday, McConnell publicly expressed opposition to the Democratic- and White House-backed plan and engaged key staffers to work with Corker during negotiations on the alternative proposal.
"Last night, when we got into the room and the negotiations began, we asked that McConnell's staff join us in those discussions," said Todd Womack, Corker's chief of staff. "We took breaks and conferred with McConnell throughout the night."
The negotiations unraveled Thursday evening.
"Obviously McConnell won this battle and was very skillful. Anybody who watched C-Span could tell this," Sabato said. "McConnell understands every lever of power, and he used it."
As for future dealings with the Obama administration, which likely will revisit the issue of a bailout for the Big Three within the first 100 days, McConnell has signaled that he's willing to work with Democrats — to a point.
"As a caucus, Republicans will insist on our basic right to participate in the legislative process," McConnell said last month as the party took stock of his party's dwindled ranks. "The Republican conference intends to protect the Senate's history of full and open consideration of major legislation, which includes a fair amendment process and the opportunity for debate."
(David Lightman contributed to this article.)
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