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Blunt, McConnell Whip Up Coordination

The House and Senate Majority Whips are trying to forge a relationship that they hope will closely align strategic goals and, more importantly, open a line of communication that could smooth over the notoriously bad inter-chamber relations.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) began attending each other’s Whip meetings this month, a practice designed ostensibly to plot strategy for the Medicare debate but more broadly to work on what some Republicans called “culture exchange” between the two bodies.

“We’re going to make a major effort to stay in touch with each other to the maximum extent possible,” McConnell said of his relationship with Blunt, noting that there have always been “inherent tensions” between leaders in both chambers.

The emerging Whip partnership comes just months after a very low point between the House and Senate GOP leaders, the tax-and-budget deal of early April when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) failed to inform his House counterparts of a side deal he made limiting the tax cut to $350 billion.

Neither side pointed specifically to the fall-out from the tax deal as the driving reason for the stepped up meetings between McConnell and Blunt, but both acknowledged that debacle as the example of what happens when the two chambers are not in sync.

And Blunt and McConnell are both ambitious politicians who figure to remain in their respective leadership teams for years to come, with many observers believing Blunt’s ultimate goal is the Speaker’s gavel and McConnell’s is the title of Majority Leader.

While the two Whips have enjoyed a cordial working relationship since Blunt joined the House in 1997, they have not had a vast amount of experience together.

Blunt said he and McConnell most closely worked together on election reform in the last Congress and began talking closely late last year after each man won his respective leadership election unchallenged.

McConnell was then sidelined for a month in February after he had heart bypass surgery, and March and early April saw him doing part-time duty as he recovered. That was a costly loss to Senate Republicans, in Blunt’s opinion, which helped cause problems between House and Senate leaders in the spring.

“We did suffer from having his talent on the sidelines,” Blunt said.

There were also a series of new relationships being put to the test in those early days, with almost an entirely new Senate leadership team learning to deal with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who had already been in leadership for a combined total of 12 years.

By all accounts, the House and Senate leadership teams are working more smoothly than they were three months ago. While Frist said he has not started any specific set of meetings or actions to help relations, he consistently goes out of his way to praise Hastert, who is regularly referred to as the senior partner in their relationship.

Frist said he speaks with Hastert one-on-one at least every other day. As both chambers debated Medicare coverage of prescription drugs last week, Frist huddled with Hastert in the Speaker’s office for half an hour Tuesday evening and Hastert reciprocated with a half-hour meeting in Frist’s office Wednesday.

“There’s a better understanding of the Senate culture,” Frist said, adding that he thinks both sides have put the tax fight behind them. “I doubt that it will happen again.”

But McConnell and Blunt appear to have taken the most formal steps in trying to solidify the House-Senate bonds.

McConnell suggested that Blunt attend a meeting of the Senate Whips, the first of which came June 3. Blunt called the meeting refreshing if for no other reason than to see that some of his former allies in the House, including Sens. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.), were part of McConnell’s Whip team.

The more valuable meetings, according to Blunt, were June 16 and 19 when McConnell attended Blunt’s two weekly meetings of his entire Whip operation and then the meeting of just his top deputies. Blunt said McConnell was able to spell out in strategic detail what the possibilities were for certain issues, laying out where the political land mines would be and explaining how certain things just could not be achieved because of the freestyle nature of Senate rules.

Blunt said his deputies learned from McConnell something that they might not have known before. “You don’t have to just be a House Member to be frustrated with the Senate sometimes,” he said.

McConnell and Blunt have not set up a formal schedule for when they will be attending each other’s Whip meetings, but both said it would continue to happen on an occasional basis.

Politically, both Whips have vast operations with a similarly attentive focus on their home states.

A former two-term chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, McConnell spent the weekend working to shore up his Kentucky colleagues, headlining a Friday night fundraiser in Louisville for Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R), a McConnell protege who is running for governor in November. He also planned to attend a Saturday fundraiser for Sen. Jim Bunning (R) in Louisville, which featured Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.).

Blunt, the lead House GOP fundraiser for the $24 million “Battleground 2002” program, has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Missouri GOP. His son, Missouri Secretary of State Matt Blunt, is the highest-ranking Republican to hold a non-federal statewide office and is the leading GOP contender for the gubernatorial nomination in 2004.

The Whips hope that their partnership will continue to pay dividends, both in terms of what passes on the floor and in victories at the polls.

“We’re making a greater and greater effort,” McConnell said, pointing to the passage of prescription drug coverage on the same day in both chambers as a key success. “You’re beginning to see the results of that.”

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