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McConnell Not Bullish on 2008

Leader Doesn’t Predict Gains

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Friday he believes his party is well-positioned to maintain its current 49 seats in the upcoming 2008 elections, but he downplayed the GOP’s chances for a quick return to the majority in just two years.

“Could we get it back?” McConnell asked. “It would have to be a good day.”

In fact McConnell, speaking in a wide-ranging interview with Roll Call reporters and editors, laid out unusually pragmatic expectations for the cycle, which puts 21 GOP Senate seats in play compared with just 12 Democratic-held slots. The top Senate Republican said he’s focused first and foremost on staving off potential GOP retirements, and then looking to pick off a handful of Democratic Senators in swing states, such as Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson and possibly Montana Sen. Max Baucus.

“What I think is that it’s clearly possible that we stay roughly where we are,” said McConnell, who chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 1998 and 2000 cycles.

That matter-of-fact assessment assumes Republicans won’t face a repeat of the devastating 2006 elections, which left the GOP in the minority in both the House and Senate. Republican Senators led the chamber by a comfortable 55-45 margin in the 109th Congress, a balance that tipped 51-49 in the Democrats’ favor in November.

“Clearly, we’re hoping for no more retirements, that’s a starting place,” McConnell said. “We believe we have a lot of incumbents who are in very good shape and even those incumbents in blue states … are very good politicians.”

So far, Senate Republicans are facing at least one retirement, from Sen. Wayne Allard (Colo.), and McConnell and NRSC Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) have privately been meeting with their 2008 incumbents to encourage them to seek another six-year term. McConnell said he doesn’t believe more Republican retirements are on the horizon.

Still, Democrats are heavily targeting several moderate-leaning Republicans, including Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.), John Sununu (N.H.), Gordon Smith (Ore.) and Susan Collins (Maine). In each of those high-stakes elections, McConnell said he’s confident his colleagues will secure another term.

“Some of our most skilled Senators [are] in the most dangerous states, which is good,” McConnell said. “If we can avoid further retirements and re-elect our incumbents, we’re going to be roughly where we are” now.

Senate Republicans need to wrest only two seats from the Democrats to regain control of the Senate in 2008. McConnell himself faces re-election to a fifth Senate term this cycle, and if Republicans are successful, he could assume the chamber’s gavel.

With such a narrow hold, Democrats are increasingly aware of their own challenges, including their need to keep Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) in the fold. Rumors persist that Lieberman may bolt to the GOP if he is unhappy with the Democrats’ stewardship of the chamber — particularly on the Iraq War — but when asked whether he had approached the Connecticut lawmaker about switching, McConnell demurred.

“If I had, with all due respect, I wouldn’t be telling you,” McConnell said.

On a parallel 2008 track, McConnell could play a prominent role in the upcoming presidential contest, but the Minority Leader reiterated Friday he would not take sides in the GOP primary. And while he was reluctant to make any early calls, he did project that the candidates’ diversity will not impede their ability to secure the nomination.

“Of the three top-tier candidates in both parties, I predict none of them will fail because of gender, race or religion,” he said. “Beyond that I don’t have a clue.”

McConnell added that voters are still trying to wade through the choices and are still in search of “Mr. or Mrs. Perfect,” which they aren’t going to find. Nor, McConnell said, should Republican primary voters expect to find the next Ronald Reagan, especially since ex-Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) — who had hoped to play that role — was no longer in the running.

McConnell also said he believes that the front-loaded primary calendar means it is no longer possible for an underfunded, dark-horse candidate to win the party’s nomination in the increasingly early and competitive presidential campaign season.

“I don’t see how some Jimmy Carter-type candidate can get there coming out of nowhere,” he said, referring to the then-little-known Georgia governor’s ability to capture the presidency in 1976.

In 2007, meanwhile, McConnell has been navigating his job as the Minority Leader, a position he assumed in January after four years as the Majority Whip. McConnell succeeded Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who served as Majority Leader for four years but retired at the end of the 109th Congress.

McConnell said Friday he remains hopeful Republicans and Democrats can work together over the next two years to tackle some difficult issues, including Social Security and immigration reform — two enduring puzzles the GOP majority and President Bush were unable to solve. He acknowledged that he has been working behind the scenes to try to advance both issues through the chamber but declined to discuss any details.

In fact, McConnell said he believes the best hope for dealing with the two oft-contentious issues is a split government that forces each side to swallow a difficult pill. And, he said, 2007 is the best chance to do it given the political pressures that take hold of Congress in an election year.

“I actually still have quite — maybe not as much as two months ago — but have quite high hopes that Congress won’t squander these two years by playing small ball,” he said.

In that same breath, however, McConnell criticized the Democrats for spending too much time on issues of little consequence in their first two months in control, including House Democrats’ early passage of six priority legislative items such as a minimum-wage increase, stem-cell research funding, lower interest rates for college loans and implementing some outstanding recommendations of the 9/11 commission.

Senators, for their part, have spent much of the past two months negotiating on the Iraq War, an issue that has forced both parties to take tough positions on the conflict. McConnell also poked fun at the Democrats for revising their Iraq strategy on numerous occasions, saying “they are really having a struggle amongst themselves.”

GOP Senators too have had their divisions on Iraq, but McConnell rejected any suggestion that Republicans take any orders from the White House on the war or any other topic.

“Senators do not toe the line,” McConnell said. “The reason most Senate Republicans agree with the president is because we agree with what he’s doing. The notion that somebody at the White House snaps their fingers and we would hop to is absurd on its face.”

As for the Democrats, McConnell insisted he continues to share a solid relationship with his counterpart, Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), also a veteran of the chamber and a former Whip. The pair, he said, continue to work together despite some of their increasingly divisive procedural and legislative battles.

“We are friends,” he said. “We have differences of opinion, but it’s nothing personal. We work together very well. I like him and I’m pretty sure he likes me. At least I think he does.”

McConnell also gave high marks to his Republican counterpart in the House, Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), and made light of the newfound relationship between the new GOP House and Senate minorities. In previous Congresses, he noted that House Republicans saw Senators as an impediment to their agenda. Now, House Republicans see the Senate as the best chance to stop the Democratic agenda.

“Senate Republicans have gone from being the problem to being the firewall,” McConnell said with a smile. “I’ve seen a new respect from House Republicans.”

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