ELIZABETHTOWN — In the first two years of Barack Obama's presidency, Mitch McConnell raised the art of obstructionism to new levels. When McConnell and his united GOP troops couldn't stop things from getting through the Senate, they made sure the Democrats paid a heavy price for winning.
But now, the Senate minority leader who used to refer to himself as "the abominable no-man" faces a very different challenge: Can he actually deliver?
"The first two years, it was frankly pretty simple. From my point of view, they didn't try to do anything in the political center in the first two years, so there was no particular appeal" in trying to get things done, the Kentucky Republican said in an interview as he traveled his home state during a recent recess. "The biggest difference will be deciding when we are actually in a position to work with the administration — and when we aren't."
Bipartisanship, of course, is just about everyone's favorite tune these days. But for McConnell — who has some of the best tactical instincts in Washington — the choices ahead are pivotal.
Having a new Republican majority in the House and six new GOP senators, his hand is stronger. But with more power comes higher expectations. The Republicans' political gains are fragile, and voters — who have tossed a party out in each of the past three elections — have shown they will not tolerate politicians who don't produce results.
McConnell said the window for doing that is small, maybe six to nine months, before the presidential campaign overtakes everything else.
The potential for doing business with the Obama administration is there, however, as evidenced by the deal-making last month between McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden. It produced a tax cut — and McConnell's first-ever invitation to a bill-signing ceremony at the Obama White House, where the president lauded their "extraordinary work."
The vice president and the GOP leader now speak frequently on the phone. And on Feb. 11, Biden will join McConnell for a conference on Senate leadership at a location that is both close to McConnell's heart and a beneficiary of his fund-raising prowess: the University of Louisville's McConnell Center.
It's a new relationship for a Republican leader who didn't have a one-on-one meeting with the president until more than 18 months into Obama's term.
"It was just business. I wasn't relevant to their business in the 111th Congress and I understood that," McConnell said. "Things have shifted."
At the same time, McConnell is crucial to pushing forward his own party's conservative agenda. And he has said that ensuring that Obama is a one-term president is his "top political priority."
While the new House speaker, John Boehner, R-Ohio, probably will be able to get pretty much anything he wants in his chamber, the Senate could be the burial ground for those initiatives. That was the case the last time Republicans took charge of the House in 1995, even though the GOP also held a narrow majority in the Senate.
Marshaling his troops is something McConnell did extraordinarily well in the last Congress, when it took every one of his 41 members hanging together to block things with a filibuster.
But now, said Republican Whip Jon Kyl, Ariz., "we will have to go more on offense."
In McConnell's view, that opportunity arises from the electoral map.
"Wholly aside from the Republicans, there may be Democrats anxious to cooperate with us," the Republican leader said. "You've got 23 of them up in 2012, a number of them in red states. They may be quite anxious to look a lot more Republican in the next two years, which could mean that we're not just talking about getting 41. We're talking about getting 60."
Democrats are skeptical he will get far. "He's right there will be members who will vote with his caucus on some issues," said Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill. But Durbin noted that when Democratic leaders polled their new caucus last month on the question of repealing Obama's health care law — which McConnell has vowed to bring to a vote in the Senate — they were reassured to discover that "he would not have received 50 votes."
A Senate Democratic leadership aide said that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., finds McConnell hard to figure out because he is slow to commit when they negotiate. "He does not show his hand," said the aide, who was granted anonymity to speak freely.
"He's a very tough negotiator," agreed retired Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who worked closely with McConnell on politically sensitive legislation revamping election procedures in the wake of the 2000 presidential recount. "But if he gives his word, it's as good as anyone's in politics. I always found he was pretty good for a handshake."
Even with greater numbers on his side, McConnell will have to contend with tensions from within, especially with the Tea Party reinforcements who have bolstered the ranks of a truculent conservative wing. That faction on the right is unofficially led by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who is often at odds with McConnell.
Tea Partiers regard McConnell with some suspicion. In his home state's Republican Senate primary last year, he made a rare break from intraparty neutrality and supported the establishment pick, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, against their candidate — and the ultimate victor — Rand Paul.
But even that was a characteristic act of calculation — albeit a wrong one — for McConnell, who dominates his home-state politics as few others senators have.
"A lot of it was concern about keeping the seat," acknowledged Grayson, "and that if we lost a seat in his home state, it would weaken him."
McConnell moved quickly, once the primary was over, to close ranks with Paul. "He was able to put it aside," Grayson said. "If there's a loss, he learns his lesson, and he moves on."