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McConnell Takes the Inside Track

In the two months since he became the top Senate Republican, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has worked to avoid the early pitfalls of his predecessor, former Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), by quickly shoring up the loyalty of his colleagues and patching up fissures that might test his strength within the Republican Conference.

McConnell began an aggressive campaign to cement support within his own ranks shortly after unanimously winning the Leader job in November. The veteran conservative lawmaker immediately initiated one-on-one, relationship-building meetings with his fellow GOP Senators; sought to refurbish his relationship with Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.); and made it clear he wanted Senators to air their grievances behind closed doors — and to him directly — rather than on the front pages.

“Mitch McConnell’s strength is he knows the Senate and understands it is almost entirely based on personal relationships,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “Most successful leaders’ strategy is silent, but he has a very good understanding of where each of us is, and he works with us privately.”

Republican Senators and aides say McConnell believes his party’s success rests on mutual trust and has demonstrated that view in his early days as Leader. And regardless of whether he admits it, McConnell already is lining up as the stylistic antithesis to Frist, who leapfrogged into the Majority Leader’s job as a junior Member and never truly enjoyed the full faith of his Conference.

Frist, first elected in 1994, won the top GOP slot in late 2002 when Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) stepped aside after having delivered what were perceived as racially insensitive remarks at the 100th birthday of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

Many believed Frist was hand-picked by President Bush to succeed Lott and hadn’t followed the typical seniority path into the leadership. What’s more, Frist constantly was dogged by rumors that he was more concerned about running for the White House in 2008 than leading the Republican Senate majority.

One senior Senate Republican aide said McConnell “would cringe” at any suggestion that he is trying to be the “un-Frist.” But the aide acknowledged that McConnell, rounding out his fourth term in the Senate, is an entirely different brand of Senator than Frist and approaches the job from a vastly different perspective.

“This is the way he works,” the staffer said. “He is an operator. His goal is to make the team do well. He’s not running for president, he doesn’t have ambitions to be vice president. He’s the leader and he’s going to make sure the caucus does well.”

One GOP Senate aide said McConnell’s approach has both a public and private aspect. McConnell has sought to take on a new role as the face and messenger for the GOP while embracing a free exchange with his fellow Senators. “Part of his style is that he thinks you get better ideas when you have more smart people in the room than less,” the aide said.

McConnell started lining up “face time” meetings with his Senate colleagues late last year. He has met with dozens of Members so far, including some Democrats, and continues to hold the closed-door sessions, sources close to him say.

Beyond the temperature-taking with colleagues, McConnell has sought to mend open wounds and avoid future ones. Notably, McConnell has worked to rebuild a relationship with Lott, who orchestrated a surprise comeback to leadership in the fall when he bested Alexander by one vote to win the Whip job. Many believed that McConnell preferred Alexander to the more media savvy Lott, who once held the very job McConnell now holds.

Still, McConnell and Lott appear poised to move beyond the leadership elections. The two Senators and their wives shared a quiet dinner in Washington, D.C., recently in what aides described as more of a social engagement to further their partnership.

One Republican aide said neither man wants their relationship to mimic the strained ties between Lott, when he served as Majority Leader, and former Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.), which culminated in Nickles pushing for Lott’s ouster as Leader in 2002.

“We don’t need that tension,” said the GOP staffer.

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), one of McConnell’s top lieutenants, said McConnell “understands this institution as well or better than anybody” and knows relationships with fellow Republicans are key to success. Bennett believes McConnell’s approach will pay dividends down the road, not only for his strength as the GOP leader but also for the Conference.

“He’s doing the natural kinds of things that any Senate leader would do,” Bennett said.

McConnell also made clear at the outset of the 110th Congress that he prefers that Senators come to him directly with problems or concerns — legislatively and politically. He put that call into practice earlier this month when he summoned a divided group of Senators to his office to privately vet different approaches to the Iraq War and Bush’s plan to increase troops in the region.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who sometimes bucks his own party on issues such as Iraq, said even when the party has been divided on the war, McConnell has shown a willingness to accept divergent views and seek a political result that can benefit all Republicans. Asked whether McConnell has put an early premium on building up loyalties, Coleman said: “He’s worked on it, and worked on it very effectively.”

McConnell’s networking has provided some early dividends so far. For instance, McConnell privately urged Senators to trust him — and accept the political risks — by voting to block movement of the ethics reform package for the sake of a vote on line-item veto authority. He did the same thing when he asked Republicans to stick by him and block a vote on the minimum-wage bill unless it included GOP-backed small-business tax breaks.

Both moves came with potential pitfalls, but in both cases McConnell was able to get the result he sought — a vote on both the ethics and the line-item proposals, as well as a minimum-wage increase tied to the tax breaks.

“He understands that if he wants people’s trust, he has to trust them and he has to show them that if he says he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it,” said the Republican Senate aide.

“He knows how to play hardball, but he also knows how to dust us off afterward,” added Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.).

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said it is clear that McConnell is taking a much different approach to the Minority Leader post, and that early on the Kentucky lawmaker has garnered support from Republicans of all political stripes. That was no more evident than when McConnell won the GOP gavel unopposed even after Democrats’ overwhelming gains in the 2006 elections, he said.

Burr said McConnell knows that especially in the minority, Republicans need to act in unison. By shoring up his relationships now, Burr said Senators are going to be more inclined to put their faith in McConnell — especially as bipartisanship wears thin.

“Votes as time goes on are going to get much tougher,” Burr said. “All of this will help keep that team together.”

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