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McConnell Hits Stride on Health Reform

The focus of this year’s health care debate has been squarely on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). But the issue has quietly given rise to another player: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

In late May, McConnell gave the first of what would be a series of floor speeches on health care reform. His goal was not necessarily to influence the court of public opinion; rather, it was to provide his Conference with a road map for combatting the Democratic health care agenda. McConnell knew then that Senate Republicans — just 40 strong — would have a tough time derailing Democratic reform plans, but he hoped that by going out early with the GOP message on the issue, he could keep his Conference united enough to make the majority’s job a tall order.

“He’s got a great sort of a way of looking into the crystal ball and trying to figure out what the picture of victory is at the end. Sometimes around here you get caught up in the tyranny of the urgent, that it’s more crisis management from day to day. But I think he’s very strategic in the way that he thinks,— Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said Tuesday.

McConnell is in his second term as Minority Leader, and he is certainly not without his critics. He’s reserved and soft-spoken, enters the spotlight reluctantly and likes to avoid controversy. But his colleagues say the health care debate has given him the opportunity to do what he does best: convince Members that sticking together is the only way to serve as an effective minority.

“I think it’s been masterful,— National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said, adding that McConnell has been able to keep the GOP Conference together despite early concerns that its losses over the past two cycles would further fracture the group. “He’s kept all of us together. We’ve been enormously successful,— he said.

“I’m delighted … he has the whole team working with him and behind him,— Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) added.

[IMGCAP(1)]As part of that, McConnell has tried to give his Members significant roles in the GOP health care effort. While he takes to the Senate floor and hits the Sunday talk show circuit — he’s appeared 16 times this year — his colleagues have led the party’s day-to-day messaging and legislative fights. McConnell has looked to his colleagues to carry out the ground game, whether it’s putting on weekly Web videos, holding regular pen-and-pad appearances with reporters or spearheading the party’s procedural fights. In the latest example, Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) is leading the GOP Conference’s effort to force a reading of the entire health care bill, which could take several days.

“When you don’t have the White House and you don’t have the majority, there is no one national messenger. … I view my job as to frame the message and sell it to my Members and selling to the American people,— McConnell said in an interview this week, adding that when Republicans are united, “you have a better chance of doing that.—

McConnell said his philosophy has been “developing the theme [and] using the theme, usually with great repetition. … You’ve got to keep saying it and saying it and saying it.—

A review of McConnell’s floor speeches and statements from mid-May to the end of July shows that the top GOP Senator was laying out the party’s strategy months in advance. Republican Senators later used the speeches to frame the party’s various critiques of the Democratic health care proposals.

McConnell started his health care reform floor campaign with a series of seven speeches on the dangers of a public insurance option and “government-run health care.— By June 16, McConnell had pivoted to his next set of talking points, a critique of Democrats’ broader health care agenda, focusing on the cost of reform as it relates to spending and taxes.

McConnell then moved on to a set of speeches on the Democrats’ timing for passing a bill, arguing that Congress should slow down its deliberations. Then, at the end of June, McConnell led his missives with questions over what, exactly, Democrats meant by reform. He wrapped up the effort with three straight days of floor speeches on the costs of reform to the Medicare program.

It was hardly by coincidence, Republicans said, that Senators kicked off August by attacking the Democrats over the public insurance option. One month later, Senators followed McConnell’s blueprint by criticizing the costs of the reform plan.

Those themes ran through President Barack Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress and lasted through much of the fall, until Republicans eventually pivoted to raising concerns over the bill’s impact on Medicare and demanding that Democrats slow down the process.

McConnell’s allies say his strategy couldn’t have worked had he tried to go it alone. And McConnell himself acknowledged that he had a better chance of success if he tapped into the individual expertise of his colleagues. “I spend a lot of time trying to draw on the talents of Members,— he said.

“He delegates a lot. He knows we have people with certain expertises and talents that they bring. So when we get into a debate on a particular issue, he’s pretty good at recognizing the people who have that expertise and sort of getting them out in front. But he sets the tone. He gets up every morning and gets out there and talks about what the message is. And that’s something everybody else sort of drafts off,— Thune said.

Barrasso has worked with a fellow doctor, Coburn, on what the Republicans call the “doctor’s show,— a weekly Web video on health care reform.

“He’s involved me thoroughly from the very beginning,— Barrasso said of McConnell.

Likewise, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) has regularly done a PowerPoint presentation for Members outlining the party’s talking points on health care reform. Those presentations draw heavily on McConnell’s floor speeches and statements, Alexander said, adding that his job is to help turn McConnell’s ideas into usable tools for Senators.

“The job is the message. My first client is the leader, and my second client are the Members. … I try to listen very carefully [to McConnell’s speeches] and help the individual Member,— Alexander said.

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