- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2008

Tangible proof that you can make your mark in Washington as a Senate minority leader can be found just a half-minute subway ride from the U.S. Capitol.

At the other end of the line is the Everett M. Dirksen Senate Office Building - named in honor of the Illinois Republican who held the minority leadership post for a decade from 1959 to 1969 and whose seat was until recently occupied by a freshman senator from Chicago named Barack Obama.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, has held the job since November 2006, but with Mr. Obama moving to the White House and the Republican Party set to hold - at best - 42 seats in the new Senate, the courtly 66-year-old lawmaker figures to be under intense scrutiny in the coming months.

“Depending on how he plays it, he could be the most powerful Republican left standing in Washington or he could be the least powerful,” said Brian Darling, a former Capitol Hill aide and now director of Senate relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “He has to be very forceful if he’s not going to be steamrollered by the Democrats in the next session.”

Unlike in the House of Representatives, Senate rules give a determined minority real clout. With 40 votes, the Senate Republicans can filibuster legislation and at least force the Obama administration and Senate Democrats to the bargaining table.

The soft-spoken, bespectacled Mr. McConnell said last week his tactics will depend in large part on the approach used by President-elect Obama.

“We would hope that the new president will choose to govern in the center,” he said Tuesday after being unanimously re-elected to his leadership post.

“And when he chooses to do that, I think he can probably expect a high level of cooperation from Senate Republicans. Our advice to him would be to govern as he ran after securing the nomination.”

Some Senate Republicans even talk privately of being “liberated” by the election, no longer tied to a historically unpopular Republican president or forced to subordinate their agenda to the needs of the White House.

The House Republican caucus last week formally replaced the party’s second- and third-in-command. By contrast, Mr. McConnell and his Senate leadership slate were re-elected by acclamation, despite the loss of at least seven seats this year and at least 13 since 2006.

“The feeling in the caucus was that there were a lot of circumstances out there which we didn’t have much control over,” said Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican. “Senator McConnell has been a good leader, and he proved very effective in the last session.”

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican recently named to spearhead the party’s Senate campaigns in 2010, added, “We’ve got problems, but I don’t think there are many people around here who think we’re to blame for most of them.”

Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, is a party conservative who might be seen as unhappy with Mr. McConnell’s low-key style and his reluctance to engage in sharp confrontations with the Democratic opposition.

At the closed-door Senate Republican Conference meeting Tuesday, Mr. DeMint offered two amendments to clip the power of more senior colleagues, including term limits for the chamber’s party leader. Both were soundly defeated, amid reports of pointed exchanges during the debate.

But Mr. DeMint told The Washington Times afterward he had no problems with Mr. McConnell as the party’s standard-bearer.

“Everyone trusts him, and he’s got a steady hand,” Mr. DeMint said. “… Our problem certainly isn’t Senator McConnell at this point. I think folks believe that he can probably do as much as anyone can with 41 or 42 votes.”

Senate Democrats respect the Kentucky Republican for his parliamentary skills and knowledge of the Senate rules. He became a hero to many conservatives for leading a rear-guard action to block moves to overhaul campaign-finance laws, calling the effort an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

But Democrats have targeted Mr. McConnell as a key ally of President Bush in frustrating their agenda following the party’s capture of both the House and Senate in 2006.

“Mitch McConnell has continually blocked any meaningful change in the president’s Iraq policy and repeatedly defended the status quo,” said Louisville business executive Bruce Lunsford, the Democratic candidate who narrowly lost to Mr. McConnell earlier this month.

Democratic ads during the campaign said only conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had done more than Mr. McConnell to block social progress and liberal goals.

While the Nov. 4 elections were largely a disaster for the Republicans, Mr. McConnell has already caught a couple of breaks. For one thing, he’s still employed.

The national Democratic Party poured $6 million into the Kentucky Senate race in the closing weeks of the campaign after polls showed Mr. Lunsford had a chance to score an upset.

Some Democrats and liberal activists saw the effort as payback for the ouster of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle - Mr. Obama’s choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services - by Mr. Thune in 2004. In the end, Mr. McConnell won a fifth term by a 52.9 percent to 47.1 percent margin.

“Winston Churchill once said that the most exhilarating feeling in life is to be shot at and missed,” Mr. McConnell said on election night. “After the last few months, I think what he really meant is that there’s nothing more exhausting.”

The loss by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, convicted just days before the election of lying on his Senate disclosure forms, removes a political headache for Mr. McConnell, and the retirement of Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, following his well-publicized 2007 arrest for an encounter in an airport bathroom, ends a public-relations nightmare.

The Heritage Foundation’s Mr. Darling said Mr. McConnell “will have to fight hard” against Democratic parliamentary tactics designed to circumvent Senate rules and the privileges of the minority as Mr. Obama pursues an ambitious agenda.

One such tactic, increasingly used by Mr. Reid, is known as “filling the tree” - essentially, grabbing all the available slots for amending a bill under Senate rules to prevent the minority from offering any amendments of their own. Mr. Reid did not invent the practice, but Republicans charge he has employed it far more frequently than in the past.

Mr. Reid “is trying to turn the Senate into the House,” where the minority party has far more limited ways to affect legislation, Mr. Darling said.

Mr. McConnell admitted last week that “we were not very happy with the outcome” of the election.

But, he quickly added, “several of us remember being here in ‘93 and ‘94 when we had a Democratic president, a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate. We know how to find our way back.”

S.A. Miller contributed to this report.

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