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McConnell a poker-faced pragmatist

GOP leader plays his cards agilely

- Associated Press - Sunday, December 12, 2010

Nearly 200 cartoons hang on Sen. Mitch McConnell's office wall, each lampooning him for backing big-money politics, vexing his foes and getting slammed through a basketball hoop by an airborne President Obama.

At the halftime of Mr. Obama's first term, Mr. McConnell is the one soaring. Last month's elections, which gave Republicans control of the House, more seats in the Senate and blew the Democrats into glum disarray, gave Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican, almost as much power over the government's direction as the president himself.

The looming expiration of tax cuts provided an early opportunity to exploit that clout. The White House came to Mr. McConnell for a deal. Quietly, Mr. McConnell and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., colleagues in the Senate for decades, hashed out an agreement balanced with big victories, tough concessions - and heartburn for all concerned.

"We have the deal," Mr. McConnell told Mr. Biden.

"We are on," Mr. Biden responded.

No player benefited more than Mr. McConnell.

Whatever its fate, the agreement moved the 68-year-old Senate minority leader beyond the agenda-blocking role that defined him the past two years. There's now a fragile nexus between the Obama White House and congressional Republicans where there had been scant communication, a precedent for making policy together rather than standoffs.

The "Obama-McConnell" deal, as Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, derided it, put Mr. McConnell at the table with the president he has vowed to turn from office.

If the relationship holds, the Obama White House will be dealing with the Republicans' most agile negotiator, stone-faced, governed by discipline and swathed in Southern gentility. Mr. McConnell is a conservative ideologue at heart who operates as leader with cold pragmatism and a lawyerly approach to persuasion.

"I don't want the president to fail. I want him to change," Mr. McConnell says in almost every public forum.

It's worth noting that Mr. McConnell apparently has never aspired to Mr. Obama's job, an uncommon quality among senators and one that helps remove doubt about his motives when he is locked in negotiations or rounding up votes, colleagues and former staffers say.

But he stands out in the Senate in other ways, too. He's a stern tactician in a chamber of flamboyant public speakers. He revels in the cat-herding nature of the job, unlike his predecessor, Bill Frist of Tennessee, a surgeon practiced in life-and-death matters who was unfamiliar with the Senate.

Mr. McConnell is not given to hallway chitchat like the garrulous former Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, a former majority and minority leader; does not charm his colleagues with the wry humor of ex-Senate leader Bob Dole of Kansas. And tellingly, even those who frequently find themselves crosswise with Mr. McConnell on policy say he does not lean on them in the tradition of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

If the bespectacled senator has a style, it's inscrutability.

"He listens," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, one of two moderate Republicans from Maine with extensive experience telling Mr. McConnell they can't vote the way he would like. "I go through my reasoning, and he listens for the common ground."

"He doesn't threaten," said the other Maine Republican, Sen. Susan Collins. "I would know."

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