WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell might be the most powerful Republican in federal government, but he will have to work hard to herd his party's dwindled caucus during President-elect Barack Obama's congressional honeymoon phase.
The Kentucky Republican, who has used filibusters to block legislation he deems unfavorable, could have to fight to keep moderate Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania from joining Democrats on such key votes as the proposed $1 trillion economic stimulus package, environmental protection measures, broadening health care coverage and stem-cell research. Former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has also broken with party ranks on campaign finance reform and immigration.
The three Northeastern senators were supporters of some Democratic-backed social policy issues in the past. Hailing from a region where the GOP's legislative ranks have significantly thinned, they represent many left- to moderate-leaning voters.
Democrats have a 57-41 Senate majority, with seats in Illinois and Minnesota still being contested.
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"Compared to having 49 senators, (McConnell) is in a much worse position. If he didn't have 41 he would have no power at all," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
"Collins, Snowe and Specter will stick with Republicans on procedural and business and labor votes, so on some issues he will be able to hold the caucus together — especially if Democrats ride roughshod over them. But on social issues they have to survive an environment that has killed off Republicans in the Northeastern area."
This puts the three Northeastern lawmakers in a prime position to negotiate with McConnell and Republican leadership, said former Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, who became an independent after losing his 2006 re-election bid to represent Rhode Island.
"He'll appeal to make sure they don't abandon the entire Republican caucus," Chafee said.
The Obama administration has also made overtures to key moderate Republicans. Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden recently called, and transition officials met with the two Maine senators to discuss the stimulus proposal.
In the meantime, McConnell has touted the spirit of bipartisanship and urged his party members to hold the line during future procedural fights to give the GOP more room to negotiate.
"He's a good mathematician and he's going to be counting votes — especially if Obama will be wading in," Chafee said. "And if the Obama people are smart they won't depend on a razor-thin margin to prevent filibusters."
Obama's proposed economic stimulus package might prove one of the first tests of McConnell's ability to keep his party in line.
McConnell's "going to try and get Republican priorities into the stimulus bill," and that will require negotiating with moderate Republicans, said Michele Swers, an associate professor of American government at Georgetown University.
"Democrats will be concentrating on getting votes over to their sides. Moderate Republicans and the conservative Democrats are in a prime position because they can be the turning point," she said. Collins, Snowe and Specter "will ask for certain things for Maine or Pennsylvania."
Republicans have made it clear they want Obama's economic stimulus package to reflect generous tax cuts and limits on spending. And since they will have the 40 votes needed to halt debate, they will still have a prominent role in shaping the legislation.
McConnell said he wants at least two elements to be key parts of the plan: A reduction of the 25 percent tax rate now paid by middle-class taxpayers to 15 percent, and aid to states as loans, not grants. He and House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, made other requests: That there be full hearings, and that the federal debt not go up too sharply.
"We know at least two states that don't need the money," McConnell said. The governors of South Carolina and Texas have said they do not need the additional funds.
Congress is not capable of monitoring state-by-state spending, McConnell said, adding that "the way to make sure it's spent judiciously is to make it a loan."
Meanwhile, Democratic leaders have already warned that a filibuster on the economic stimulus will further weaken the Republican brand. McConnell, who met with Obama last week to discuss the package, has said he doesn't want to just give the president-elect a "blank check."
"Now he's not carrying the water for a president," Swers said. "The Republican Party in Congress is separate from White House. He doesn't have to convince or represent views of the president. If Obama has support, and McConnell doesn't want to be viewed as obstructionist, he'll go along. If he sees an opening, he'll take it."