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Wary McConnell On the Spot Again

As the bathroom-sex scandal involving Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) unfolds, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is finding himself in the center of another headline-grabbing controversy and, once again, he couldn’t be more uncomfortable with the circumstances.

Just nine months into his tenure as the GOP leader, the otherwise media averse and cautious McConnell is having to balance competing interests in his Conference and chart a road map through a series of potential no-win situations. Play it too safe and McConnell could appear weak as a leader and risk alienating the Republican conservative base; go too far, and he could set too strict a precedent for dealing with Senators under fire.

The Craig situation may be a bit easier for McConnell since it involves a guilty plea, allegations of lewd activity in an airport bathroom and talk of a resignation, but clearly it isn’t one the Kentuckian relishes handling. And it isn’t the first time the always careful McConnell has had to thread the needle as Minority Leader, having previously dealt with divisive intraparty fights over immigration and earmarks plus a handful of other GOP scandals.

“I don’t think anyone could write this script, do you?” asked a Republican Senate leadership aide of McConnell’s nine months as the party leader.

Certainly, McConnell has shown more muscle in dealing with the Craig headlines, having moved quickly to build pressure internally for Craig to step aside by pulling in other GOP leaders to call for an ethics inquiry into the case and urging Craig relinquish his ranking memberships. Still, McConnell didn’t entirely throw caution to the wind this time either, GOP sources have indicated, as he turned to Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) to speak directly to Craig about his Senate future last week and looked to the White House and Republican National Committee to take the first public shot at urging Craig’s resignation.

“Just like a CEO wants to punt problems to business leaders, the Minority Leader wants to punt his problems to his deputies in various roles,” observed one well-placed Republican operative. “But he realizes it comes to him at a point.”

With that in mind, McConnell has followed his personal blueprint and carefully chosen his words on the Craig matter — including deflecting suggestions that Republicans are scandal-plagued as a party and that he is applying different standards to other GOP Senators who have recently come under scrutiny. Even so, McConnell hasn’t backed off his statements this week that Craig — who has left open the possibility that he may not resign — was correct to announce plans not to return to the Senate.

Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the Republican Conference chairman, said while he doesn’t believe McConnell views the challenges he’s faced as “extraordinary” for a leader, the issues he’s had to deal with “involving Members are the most difficult.” He said McConnell has “done precisely the right thing” by working swiftly to bring the leadership team together to address the matter and urge an ethics inquiry into Craig’s actions.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said that by any measure McConnell’s response to Craig has been “appropriate and aggressive.” Suggestions that McConnell may be showing too much caution in that case — or in any other this Congress — shouldn’t be confused with his discomfort with being the center of attention, Gregg said.

“You are underestimating him — he is a very decisive individual,” Gregg said. “He’s not a person who seeks the limelight, but he makes the decisions that require tough calls. He’s not a cautious person in that sense.”

The Craig imbroglio aside, McConnell has had to weather a handful of other scandals bedeviling his Conference. In the past three months alone, news reports revealed Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) name appeared on the client list of the “D.C. Madam” and federal agents raided the Alaska home of Sen. Ted Stevens (R) in an ongoing corruption probe in that state.

In the Stevens case — just like the Craig controversy — Republican sources noted that McConnell quickly went into crisis-management mode, internally raising questions among his fellow leaders over how to keep the press frenzy in check. In that case, however, McConnell’s colleagues were disinclined to take any action against Stevens, who then asked for his fellow Senators’ support and continues to maintain his innocence.

To this day, McConnell — like many in the GOP Conference — has remained fairly quiet on the Stevens matter. By contrast, Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), once on the receiving end of his own Senate controversy, was the first and most ardent defender of the Alaska Republican, coming out with a near-immediate statement supporting his colleague.

But it isn’t just GOP ethical problems that have put McConnell on uncomfortable footing in the past nine months. McConnell has also had to balance the oft-competing ideological factions within his conference, his own 2008 re-election plans and the will of a lame-duck White House and Democratic Congressional majority.

“He’s had some challenges,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) added. “He’s proved to be decisive when he’s had to be and proved to be tough when he’s had to be. But he understands the limitations of his position. He’s not king. He’s the leader of 49 very independent-minded individuals.”

“I think he’s handled difficult situations in a very graceful way,” offered another Tennessee Republican, freshman Sen. Bob Corker. “He listens and then absorbs and then tries to chart a course that’s appropriate.”

Indeed, McConnell came under intense and somewhat unfavorable scrutiny earlier this year — both within his own party and elsewhere — for his taking a near-absent role in the Senate’s debate over immigration reform. McConnell, up for re-election in conservative Kentucky, sat on the sidelines as his divided Conference battled it out and the Democrats and White House worked to pass some type of legislation through the chamber.

What’s more, McConnell again took a cautious course as conservative Republicans — led by Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) — sought to derail the Senate ethics reform package earlier this year over their insistence that it contain strong anti-earmark language. McConnell was openly reluctant to take on those opposing conservatives and push the ethics bill through, a move that once again raised questions about his leadership style.

As one senior Republican Senate aide noted: “McConnell is usually cautious. He doesn’t pander to the whims of Members without considering carefully the consequences.”

But the staffer was quick to add that McConnell can’t always have it both ways, saying that in certain circumstances “it can have the opposite effect, and actually make a strong leader appear weaker than he really is.”

Still, the majority of McConnell’s GOP colleagues give him nothing but good marks for his handling of the Craig situation — one they note would be difficult for any leader under the best of circumstances. In fact, many even privately note that while McConnell sometimes works too quietly behind the scenes and can be too deliberative, he seemed to have struck the right balance in trying to defuse an unwinnable situation.

“He doesn’t wing it, he thinks before he speaks,” observed a senior GOP Senate leadership aide. “It’s not the sexiest thing and it leaves some people frustrated, but you notice he didn’t cause any new problems on any of those things and he didn’t do that” in the Craig case.

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