McConnell Once Again Plays Coy

Posted December 10, 2008 at 6:55pm

Which way, Mitch?

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is getting high marks from some in his Conference and criticism from others for his handling of a proposed $15 billion rescue package for the Big Three domestic automobile manufacturers. But what remains unclear is McConnell’s endgame.

“He doesn’t know where he wants this to go yet, because he doesn’t know all of the possible solutions,” a senior Senate Republican aide said Wednesday, following the GOP Conference policy lunch in which nearly every Member present voiced an opinion. “He has not made up his mind; he will, ultimately.”

McConnell’s posture is somewhat familiar. In the two years since he assumed the top Senate Republican slot, he often has worked to avoid internal party fights or step in the middle of a divided Conference, particularly when the stakes are high. On a handful of issues, McConnell stood in the shadows while his party dueled over controversial topics such as immigration reform.

Yet in the past, just like with the current battle over an automotive rescue plan, McConnell and his allies have argued his cautious approach doesn’t amount to a lack of leadership. Rather, they insist just the opposite and argue McConnell looks to take his Conference’s temperature before formulating his own policy decisions that he bases on what’s in the best interests of Kentucky and the country.

“Sen. McConnell’s responsibility to Kentucky, his Conference, and all Americans is to find the best way for our auto manufacturers to continue to do business without putting taxpayers on the hook for a failed business model,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said.

McConnell has a reputation as a master parliamentarian and knowing what Senate rules to employ to tie the Democratic majority in knots and achieve a desired outcome. But as a leader who steers his Conference toward a unified position on policy, McConnell has long been viewed by some as unwilling and overly cautious.

One Senate Republican staffer said McConnell’s low profile on the current automobile bailout issue has engendered some frustration within his Conference. The feeling among those who are less than pleased with McConnell’s cautious handling of the matter is that the Minority Leader has been reacting to the actions of Senate Democrats and the White House, rather than operating from a forward-thinking strategic framework.

This source said some Republicans would have liked to have seen the GOP put forward an alternative plan, as opposed to being in a position where the public perception is that the Conference must either accept or reject a bill negotiated by House and Senate Democratic leaders and President George W. Bush. Some in the Conference who are displeased with McConnell’s quiet approach have been hoping that he would act more decisively with his successful, albeit bitter, campaign for re-election now behind him.

“Why didn’t we come out front and lay the groundwork for the Democrats to take tough votes?” this GOP Senate aide asked.

No individual critical of McConnell’s leadership on the auto bailout debate would speak for the record, and those who would comment for attribution were uniformly complimentary.

Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), the Conference’s incoming Policy Committee chairman and one of the most vocal Members opposing a bailout of the automobile manufacturers, praised McConnell for taking the pulse of Senate Republicans rather than dictating that they stake out a particular position

Ensign, speaking after a private policy lunch that featured Vice President Dick Cheney and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, said McConnell in fact did not tell his colleagues Wednesday where he stands — either on the matter generally or a legislative proposal specifically.

Ensign has clearly acted in the mold of a forceful leader on this issue, announcing Tuesday he would use every parliamentary lever at his disposal to block the deal struck by the Democrats and the White House. But Ensign nevertheless said that McConnell’s move to determine consensus before pushing the Conference in a particular direction was the correct one.

“I think it’s proper for the Senate leader to do that,” Ensign said.

A second senior Republican Senate aide confirmed that there has been widespread satisfaction with McConnell’s handling of the auto rescue issue, arguing that any strong-arming by the Minority Leader would have been soundly rejected. Although GOP Sens. Kit Bond (Mo.) and George Voinovich (Ohio) have shown a strong interest in rescuing the automakers, even many of the more practical-minded Republicans who supported the $700 billion financial markets bailout have balked at ponying up for Detroit.

Figuring out where McConnell is likely to land on this matter has been difficult to discern.

The domestic automobile industry employs approximately 47,000 Kentuckians, including 16,000 in assembly plants and 31,000 who work for related companies such as parts suppliers. However, McConnell’s vote in October for the $700 billion rescue of the financial markets did not go over well at home, nearly costing him his long-held seat.

Political observers familiar with Kentucky predict that, absent McConnell’s constituents who are employed by the automobile companies, any rescue package for Detroit’s Big Three is likely to be met with disgust in the Bluegrass State. Accordingly, McConnell is concerned about the potential for massive job losses and would like to prevent that from happening. But he does not necessarily see a political benefit to voting in favor of another bailout.

McConnell believes his decision to tread lightly on throwing a lifeline to Chrysler, General Motors and Ford has allowed him to manage a Conference with very strong opinions — mostly against — and allow for additional potential solutions that could not come about had he staked out a position early. One example being cited is a new proposal by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), which might have legs.

The senior Senate Republican aide who confirmed that McConnell has yet to make up his mind on how he’ll vote should a bill reach the Senate floor noted that the GOP leader was only able to hear from his full Conference on Wednesday. This aide emphasized that it would have been premature for McConnell to stake out a position before he had a sense for where his colleagues are.

The aide said McConnell’s style is to include his Members in the decision-making process and allow them to draw a conclusion in a time frame and manner in which they are comfortable. On the issue of rescuing Detroit, this source argued that McConnell’s approach has put the Conference in the best position to block poor legislation without being seen as obstructionists who are bringing down the car industry.

“He generally fosters a process that allows Members to weigh in on the product they’ll vote for,” this senior Senate GOP aide said. “He doesn’t put them in a position where they feel forced to take a position before they’re ready.”

McConnell’s style might have been viewed positively in 110th Congress. But beginning in January when the 111th gavels in, it could be a detriment, offered one former Senate Republican leadership aide.

This individual said McConnell’s light footprint was necessary these past two years, given that so many Republicans faced tough re-election races — McConnell among them — and that the GOP agenda was basically set by the Republican White House and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. Holding together a Conference of 49 Senators also required a softer touch at times.

But with the newly diminished GOP minority of 41 or 42 Senators set to convene in January, the Conference is going to require a tougher hand. In upcoming battles with an enhanced Democratic majority and the Obama administration, McConnell’s cautiousness could be perceived as weakness and ineffectiveness.

The dangers are twofold: Moving slowly to lay claim to a position on an issue could allow Obama and Senate Democrats to brand the GOP in a manner that damages the minority, while also giving the appearance to the public at large that Senate Republicans are rudderless and don’t know what they are doing.

“They will need more of an outspoken leader,” the former Senate leadership aide said.