WASHINGTON —Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, aided in no small part by a shift in the congressional political landscape and public opposition to Democrat-backed health care reform proposals, has renewed leverage as he challenges President Barack Obama's uphill battle to craft bipartisan agreement on health care reform.
Before Thursday's health care summit, McConnell took to the Senate floor nearly every day this week to express his ire and denounce "grand schemes imposed from above."
As the titular head of a caucus that is clawing its way back to a place of leverage, McConnell has the difficult task of navigating his party through the Obama administration's attempts at a health care overhaul while ensuring that the GOP isn't steamrolled in the process.
He is a lawmaker whose skill as a parliamentary tactician has long earned him begrudging nods of respect across the aisle and a "survivor" who has done a good job of keeping his caucus together, said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congression al and Presidential Studies at American University.
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"A third of the Senate are (former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) Republicans," Thurber said. "They came up through the House and they are people who believe in a scorched-earth approach to politics using wedge issues to keep issues alive to the next election.
"McConnell has adapted to it. He's not charismatic, he's careful. He's not the best spokesman for the party, but he listens to them and gives them what they want."
McConnell, who for years wielded the filibuster as one of the sharpest tools in his arsenal, had worried about the increased likelihood that Democrats would try to fast-track much of Obama's agenda through Congress.
But his political fortunes changed after Republican Scott Brown won the Massachusetts seat that the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy held for 47 years. Democrats now control 59 of the 100 Senate seats.
Indiana Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh's decision not to see re-election dealt a further blow to the party, which since the start of the year has been shaken by the surprise retirement announcements of veteran Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, and the decision of Vice President Joe Biden's son Beau not to seek the Delaware seat his father held for 36 years.
The changed political landscape, coupled with public polls that show Democrat-backed health care reform plans are unpopular with American voters, gives McConnell leverage — and the White House knows it, said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.
McConnell's wariness of the president's public calls for bipartisanship could color negotiations moving forward.
"If the White House wants real bipartisanship, then it needs to drop the proposal it posted Monday, which is no different in its essentials than anything we've seen before — and start over," McConnell said.
Many Republicans think the threatened possibility that Democrats might push the plan through the Senate with a simple majority rather than a 60-vote supermajority means the Democrats aren't really trying to win over bipartisan support.
"They start from the premise that what the president and Senate bill is proposing is a radical expansion of the government in the area of health insurance, and it's something the Republicans feel duty-bound to oppose," Baker said. "The national opinion polls are on their (the Republicans') side. The president coming out of this is really going to have to do the heavy lifting. He's got a huge job of salesmanship. He's got to be a missionary of this thing."
For his part, McConnell remained largely mum for most of the summit, deferring to Republican colleagues who've taken point during the health care debates. His most pointed comments came toward the summit's conclusion when he once again insisted that the best way forward was to shelve the current proposals and start anew.
"I would not call it a waste of time. It was a good discussion," McConnell said after the summit. "We think the best way for this to be resolved is to pay attention to the people who sent us here that are saying to us overwhelmingly 'do not pass this bill.'"