WASHINGTON — In 2006, as his party reeled from stinging campaign losses, newly elected Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dreamed of a relationship with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that would result in lasting change to Social Security policy and land the two men in the history books for bipartisan reform efforts.
"Those hopes have been dashed," said McConnell, who has clashed with Reid over numerous pieces of legislation and is now facing one of the toughest re-election fights of his career against Democratic challenger and Louisville businessman Bruce Lunsford.
Two years later, that missed opportunity for compromise on a historic scale presented itself again, this time in a $700 billion bailout of floundering Wall Street companies — a measure the Bush administration said was necessary to shore up an ailing economy but was unpopular with voters.
Behind closed doors, McConnell worked with Reid to fine-tune the package's details and assure Senate passage. When that version of the measure failed to pass the House, he squared his shoulders and, in a way that those closest to him say is vintage McConnell, set about helping negotiate a tweaked version that would ultimately pass.
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He is proud of his efforts to craft the measure and sees its passage as proof that Congress can come together to "put country first" despite enormous political pressure from voters back home and an ongoing, acrimonious presidential campaign.
"I refused to accept defeat the day after it was defeated in the House. I said 'no action is not a plan,'" McConnell said. "We're going to get it done, and we're going to get it done this week. For one solitary moment, that was real power."
McConnell understands power.
The four-term senator, a Kentucky lawyer who rose through the ranks of the Republican party to serve as the ranking member in the Senate, is known in political circles for his prodigious fund-raising, his ability to bring in federal funds to his home state and his legislative maneuvering.
Up until this year, things seemed golden for the senior senator from Kentucky.
He and wife, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, are widely considered a Washington power couple, and he seemed poised to cruise to a fifth term.
Then the economy went into a free-fall and he, like many Republican lawmakers, now finds himself fighting for his political life.
McConnell's efforts to keep his seat have forced him to distance himself from an increasingly unpopular president — despite a history as one of Bush's toughest allies.
Detractors, such as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has poured money and manpower into defeating the Republican senator, accuse McConnell of being an obstructionist whose use of parliamentary procedure is manipulative and has slowed the legislative process.
"As a tactician, he's got one pretty simple tactic — it's to say no," said Matt Miller, a spokesman for the DSCC. "His strategy has been straightforward, and that's to obstruct everything that Democrats are trying to do to change the country.
"McConnell had a real opportunity to reach across the aisle and work with the Democrats, but he decided to dig in his heels and protect the president time and time again. Instead of reaching across the aisle for compromise he carried the president's water."
Members on both sides of the aisle agree that McConnell's a fighter.
He's seen as a shrewd, even-keeled tactician who has an uncanny knack for knowing when to phone holdouts to help ease the way on bills and when it's time to sit back and let a piece of legislation peter out.
Even when there is apparent consensus, he also knows when to, as veteran congressional analyst and American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein put it, "spread molasses" in the road to slow down legislation that would probably result in a presidential veto.
"Mitch is a very smart guy who works extraordinarily hard. No one outworks him. He really understands the rules and rhythms of the Senate and politics," Ornstein said. "What McConnell was able to do the past two years, and you have to ask yourself to what end, he has been able to use the filibuster and threat of filibuster to not only block things he and his colleagues don't like but also slow down when there was consensus."
Since January 2007, during McConnell's tenure as ranking Republican in the Senate, party leaders have filed motions to invoke cloture — a method of quickly ending debate — more than 90 times.
"We've seen more cloture votes in this Congress than in any previous Congress," Ornstein said. "We used to have cloture votes on a small number of issues. These past two years we've had cloture votes on all sorts of things, even trivial things ... usually followed by 30 hours of debate."
Earlier this summer, during heated negotiations over a Democrat-backed global warming measure, McConnell was one of 14 senators who voted not to let debate begin on the bill. He later brought proceedings to a standstill after calling for all 492 pages of the bill to be read aloud.
Supporters, such as freshman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. say such tactics are regrettably necessary in a body where the minority's amendments are routinely blocked.
"He's very graceful in what he does. There just aren't missteps. We never step backwards," Corker said. "He has an excellent antenna. When patience is necessary, he exercises it; when immediate action was necessary he also exercised it.
"On the financial rescue package he understood the urgency; he knew it had to be done immediately."
Using the rules
Political experts say Mc Connell exercised similarly deft maneuvering in his handling of the multibillion-dollar deal to buy out the nation's tobacco growers — a proposal that, under the senator's direction, was added not to an agriculture measure but to an international tax bill.
"I've seen Sen. McConnell in action in the senate over the past 20 years. He's not given to flights of fancy and fancy speeches. He is doggedly persistent," said former Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. who served as both Senate Majority and Minority Leader during his congressional career. "I've watched his tenacity ...
"He is the best at understanding and taking the rules and using them to his advantage."
Sometimes those efforts put him at odds with the Bush administration.
According to a Congressional Quarterly analysis, over the past eight years McConnell supported Bush administration policies 92 percent of the time. This year, the figure dropped to 74 percent.
"He was on the opposite side of the president on the farm bill," said White House counselor Ed Gillespie. "He was very courteous and gracious, but he was also very firm in making clear that it was a mistake to veto the farm bill and that if the president vetoed it would be overridden. He was right about that."
The version that passed the Senate included tax breaks for the Thoroughbred horse racing industry worth $126 million over the next 10 years, a provision that helped guarantee McConnell's support for the hotly debated bill.
Complaints of obstruction
"The fact is there are members of Congress who are in a position who have to vote just yes or no on a bill as it comes to the floor. Mitch McConnell is at the table drafting the bill," Gillespie said. "There are bills that we want passed in a certain way that he changes to his liking. When he does that, you know that when Mitch McConnell is at the table, Kentucky is at the table."
Democrats see motions to invoke cloture on bills dealing with troop withdrawal in Iraq, the House energy bill and amendments to the State Children's Health Insurance Program and the economic stimulus package as part of a trend of throwing up roadblocks to the legislative process.
Critics, such as taxpayer watchdog groups, say his 1990s-era votes to help deregulate Wall Street laid the groundwork for future financial chaos. Some say his relationships with donors in the banking, tobacco, mining and energy industries are uncomfortable at best, unethical at worst.
His tough re-election bid, they say, underscores voter frustration with his tactics.
"Any way you look at it, the Republican record when it comes to obstructionism over the last two years is record-breaking," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley. "And unfortunately, as hard-working families continued to struggle with the rising costs of living and a shrinking job market, President Bush and his Republican enablers in Congress seemed satisfied with the way things are."
McConnell says he makes no apologies for using his tactical skill to force Democrats to sit down at the table and negotiate with Republicans.
"We in the Senate have to operate in a less partisan way," he said. "It's the only legislative body in the world where a majority is not enough."