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Whipping GOP Into Shape

As Senate Republicans continue to deal with the fallout of last month’s political hurricane, incoming Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is ready to help steady the GOP’s ship as the 108th Congress begins on Tuesday.

Incoming Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is trying to assemble his staff and get through a crash course on parliamentary mechanics. But McConnell is set to hit the ground running as the loyal deputy, the No. 2 man in the Senate, claiming his job hasn’t really been affected by last month’s calamity.

“I don’t think there’s likely to be any change in job description,” he said in an interview Friday, echoing the exact same phrase he used to describe his job when he was unanimously elected two months ago. “My job is to try to win votes.”

McConnell is in exactly the same position as he expected to be before the Lott controversy swept across the Capitol, but his clout and influence could be more important than ever, particularly in the first few months of Congress when Republicans hope to begin passing a focused agenda of items.

Both Frist, 50, and McConnell, 60, have relatively little experience in the Senate leadership, with each man having served as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. But McConnell has a decade more experience in the chamber and has been at the forefront of numerous floor fights, including anti-tobacco and campaign finance legislation.

He has a wider grasp of floor procedures and parliamentary gimmickry than Frist, the kind of tactics that incoming Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) and other Democrats honed during a previous six-and-a-half-year run in the minority. Also, McConnell is more respected among conservative activists, a key constituency for Republicans that has long respected his opposition to the newly enacted campaign laws.

And McConnell is sitting in an interesting position because Frist has previously indicated that he would limit himself to just two terms, possibly leaving the Senate after 2006 for what many expect to be a White House bid in 2008. If he plays his cards right over the next four years, McConnell could be the leading contender to be the next Republican leader.

But McConnell dismisses any public talk of his own future. “I have just been elected to this job,” he said of the Whip position. “I have this job yet to do.”

And he is already displaying the same sort of public loyalty to Frist that he gave Lott during the two-week crisis that spilled out of the Mississippi Republican’s comments at a birthday party for the retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

“I think there’s been a tendency to underestimate Bill Frist all along,” McConnell said, recalling the heart surgeon’s first run for office, a stunning rout of former Sen. James Sasser (D-Tenn.) in 1994. “I don’t think Bill will need to rely on me any more than Trent would have.”

McConnell said Frist is a remarkably quick study whom Democrats should fear. He also said Frist has been receiving a “bum rap” for the perception that he is too close to the White House or that President Bush’s aides orchestrated his rise to GOP leader.

One senior aide to an incoming Republican chairman compared the new Senate leadership to the previous few years of House GOP leadership, with McConnell taking on the role of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who served as Majority Whip for eight years and takes over this year as Majority Leader. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) played the part of a genial leader who was respected by all factions, while DeLay was a master behind-the-scenes tactician who could corral votes and design floor strategies.

“My guess is that it will be like the Hastert and DeLay relationship,” the aide said, noting that Frist would be a much better spokesman than Hastert and McConnell and less combative than DeLay. “At least privately that’s what a lot of us are hoping for.”

McConnell’s loyalty to his leader is not surprising. His career has been marked by being a Senator’s Senator, rising through the ranks to become a two-term NRSC chairman and then chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee, a post that gave him the power to dole out hideaways, office space and other perks. He also previously served as chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, a thankless job which enabled McConnell to collect still more chits with colleagues.

With outgoing Minority Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.) up against a newly imposed six-year limit on leadership posts, McConnell began his campaign for the post in the summer of 2001. He hit on a theme of returning the office to its “more tactical and procedural” roots, with a focus on running the floor operation, one GOP aide said. This was meant to be a contrast with the Nickles operation, which was more policy-based and often openly clashed with Lott as Nickles periodically mulled challenging the leader.

McConnell was promising a smoother operation without the infighting. With Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) running his campaign, McConnell easily outpaced his only rival, outgoing GOP Policy Committee Chairman Larry Craig (Idaho), who bowed out of the Whip’s race just after the Nov. 5 elections returned the chamber to Republicans.

McConnell took the job by acclimation Nov. 14, and Bennett is now his Chief Deputy Whip. Unlike Frist, who is just assembling his staff, McConnell has had a seasoned team of veterans in place for several months, ready to take over the floor operation. Kyle Simmons, who ran the NRSC for McConnell, is the Whip’s chief of staff. Mike Solon, a longtime top aide to retired Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), is the policy director.

Brian Lewis, who served as Rules committee counsel and negotiated the compromise on election reform legislation, will serve as floor counsel. And John Abegg, McConnell’s legal counsel for years, will have the same role for the Whip.

But little did McConnell know that his first act of loyalty to Lott, and his first Whip count, would be in the effort to save Lott’s job. He declined to go through the specific conversations he had with Senators, but he acknowledged, “I don’t think there was anyone who spoke to more Senators in that period than I did.”

Many Senators shied away from publicly supporting Lott, but McConnell and a handful of other Republicans, including GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.), took to the airwaves on his behalf. It was a futile effort, but one that hasn’t hurt McConnell’s credibility.

On the morning of Dec. 20, when Lott would eventually resign as leader,

McConnell called to say he didn’t have the votes to lead.

Within minutes of Lott’s resignation, McConnell threw his support behind Frist. One senior Republican aide described McConnell’s support of Frist as a “signal” to other conservatives that Frist was good enough for McConnell so he should be good enough for them. He also discouraged Santorum from challenging Frist, calling for a quick show of unity.

McConnell downplayed his role and said none of his calls were “decisive,” that Lott knew he was going to resign at that point. “The most important thing was to come out of this with a unified Conference,” he said.

Frist and McConnell will be tested right out of the gate as they try to cut a deal on organizing the chamber’s committees, work on leftover appropriations bills from 2002 and begin moving some conservative judicial nominations.

Their work will be cut out for them. They have a combined six years of leadership experience, all of it at the NRSC. They are replacing a duo who had 32 years of combined experience in House and Senate leadership.

But McConnell is predicting success. “Sometimes rookies do all right,” he said.

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