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McConnell Yet to Engage on War

A virtual no-show during last month’s divisive immigration debate, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is expected by his fellow Republicans to emerge soon from the shadows and reassert himself as a leading face of the GOP. But at least in the early hours of this week’s showdown over the Iraq War, that hasn’t happened yet.

McConnell was missing for much of the Senate’s consideration of comprehensive immigration reform — a controversial measure that the Minority Leader quietly opposed and one that divided his party.

But the Iraq debate is different, Republicans insisted, given that many Senators and McConnell himself are largely unified behind a message of giving the White House until September to demonstrate progress in the region. That unity, they said, should make it easier for McConnell to once again flex his leadership muscle despite a handful of well-publicized GOP doubters.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) — who along with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and other conservatives benefited from McConnell’s decision to bow out of the immigration fight last month — said prior to Tuesday’s policy lunch that he expected McConnell to resume his position at the front of the party now that Iraq was on the front burner.

Sessions said that while he “felt it was appropriate that Sen. McConnell did not weigh in [on immigration] and basically let it play out,” he believed that with much of the GOP still behind the president on Iraq, McConnell would step up.

“I think he will provide leadership,” Sessions said.

“Immigration breaks across party lines, it’s a unique situation,” added conservative Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). “Mitch has a great style in my judgment. He’s greatly underestimated until the votes are tallied, then you see what a great leader he really is. You’re going to see that play out this week. “

The extent to which that maneuvering will be public, however, remains to be seen. Even though McConnell has been to the floor more times in the past two days than during the bulk of the immigration debate, and led a cadre of his colleagues to the microphones on Tuesday to defend the White House efforts in Iraq, his comments on the war policy have been among the Senate’s most tepid.

Republican aides noted that McConnell was supposed to use his Tuesday press availability to take aim at an Iraq redeployment proposal sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.). But instead of attacking Democrats’ positions, McConnell made only brief comments, which he limited to a vow to hold Democrats to a 60-vote threshold for any Iraq amendments.

In contrast, GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), John Cornyn (Texas) and Kit Bond (Mo.) took turns lambasting the Democrats, arguing that a troop withdrawal would benefit terrorist cells in the country.

What’s more, McConnell has been absent from several high-powered meetings on Iraq with other senior Republicans, including Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.), McCain and Graham. Those Senators have been in discussions with the White House over the past several days to determine how best to proceed on the Defense Department authorization bill.

McConnell’s allies insist the Minority Leader is fully engaged in the Iraq debate and has done nothing to shy away from participating on the floor and working with his colleagues to present a unified front against the Democrats. And, McConnell’s backers say, the leader will continue to take a hard line for the GOP as it looks to stave off Democratic attempts to undercut the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq.

“He’s certainly going to be out there more,” said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart, noting that his boss was the first to speak on the floor on the issue, led the GOP Senate stakeout Tuesday and was an active participant in the day’s private Member lunch.

“He takes a measured approach to things,” Stewart said. “He’s not a screamer. But he will get his point across, will stick by his Conference and he will continue to point out the dangers that face us in Iraq.”

Still, McConnell’s initial approach to this month’s Defense bill is starkly different than how he handled the Iraq issue before the immigration debate. For instance, earlier this year, with Republicans struggling to defend Bush’s plan in the face of Democratic claims that it was a business as usual approach, McConnell coined the term “Petraeus Plan” — a reference to Gen. David Petraeus — as a way to paint the troop “surge” as a new tactic.

Similarly, McConnell has in the past repeatedly portrayed Democrats’ plans as little more than a retreat from the fight against terrorists and has been one of the White House’s most outspoken supporters.

Immigration reform was a tough issue for many Senators and particularly McConnell, who hails from a conservative state and is up for re-election in 2008. McConnell already is a key target of Democrats who want to unseat him, even though he is a seasoned political hand who already has raised millions against a not-yet-announced opponent.

McConnell has said his approach to immigration reform had everything to do with wanting to ensure fair treatment to an entire Republican Conference composed of Members holding deeply emotional views on the matter.

Cornyn, the Conference vice chairman, said Iraq should be easier for McConnell to steward given there is “more cohesiveness” in the GOP ranks. Asked whether that unity will allow McConnell to resume a higher-profile leadership role in the coming weeks, Cornyn said, “I guess so.”

Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), a leading backer of the failed immigration bill, agreed, saying he expects Republicans will largely hang together on Iraq, and believes McConnell will be ahead of that pack. “He’s the leader. I expect that he will,” Martinez said.

Internally, Republicans said they view Iraq as the next big test for McConnell to show he can lead his party on a position that isn’t widely favored by the public. GOP Senators know they are under the gun on Iraq as voters continue to lose confidence in the effort.

“He disappeared during the immigration debate … and he has yet to reappear,” said one GOP aide to a conservative Senator. “This may be a good re-election strategy, but it could weaken his position in Washington.”

But DeMint, who helped lead the efforts to kill the immigration bill, said Iraq “should be” a much easier debate for McConnell to manage, despite growing concerns within the party that Bush’s policy isn’t working. Most Republicans, he argued, still believe an immediate or time-specific withdrawal is an unwise position.

“Certainly there are defectors, but most of our Conference will come together,” DeMint argued. “We said let’s give them until September. We made a deal.”