The leaders in a new Senate filled with big egos and presidential wannabes are inside players whose best work is done behind closed doors rather than in front of television cameras.
Whether the majority leader will be Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada or Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky hinged on one uncalled race in Virginia, where Democrats clung to a narrow lead.
Both Reid and McConnell have a shrewd knowledge of the Senate. Neither, however, has designs on the White House, in contrast to retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
Reid would become majority leader if Democrats oust incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen in Virginia. If Allen wins, Reid and McConnell would have to work out a power-sharing agreement in a 50-50 Senate, where Vice President Dick Cheney would hold the tiebreaker vote on many party-line issues.
A sometimes dour Morman and former boxer, Reid is soft-spoken but has a tough hide. “I always would rather dance than fight,” he likes to say. “But I know how to fight.”
He opposes abortion and some gun control laws, putting him to the right of many in his caucus. But he wins praise from liberals.
“He really does develop consensus before he makes decisions,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “He’s a very self-effacing individual. There’s a certain naivete to Harry that’s refreshing. He’s not rehearsed.”
Reid, 66, grew up in a hardscrabble mining town in the Mojave Desert, and worked his way through college, then law school in Washington as a Capitol Hill cop. He served five years as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission in the late 1970s, and later was lieutenant governor and a House member before winning election to the Senate. He became minority leader following South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle’s defeat in 2004.
McConnell a seasoned politician
McConnell, 64, is unopposed in his bid to succeed Frist as Republican leader. Unlike Frist, who was catapulted into the majority leader’s post with no leadership experience, McConnell has held several key posts since his election to the Senate in 1984.
He chaired the committee that sets the chamber’s rules and led the fundraising committee that recruits and helps finance the GOP’s Senate candidates. He’s been GOP whip for two years and was a trusted lieutenant to former Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
McConnell is best known for his fierce opposition to restrictions on raising and spending money in political campaigns.
Utah Republican Sen. Robert Bennett, a close McConnell friend, said the Kentucky Republican has the best political instincts of anyone in the Senate leadership, citing the groundwork he methodically laid for succeeding Frist.
“Brick by brick, he built a firewall. So whenever somebody decided they wanted to run, all we had to do was sit down and say to them, ’This is what you’re going to have to deal with,”’ Bennett said. “One by one, potential opponents said, ’Wait a minute, I don’t want to run and lose.”’
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on an appropriations subcommittee chaired by McConnell, called the Kentucky Republican a tough opponent, but a trustworthy consensus builder.
“We’re both very much old school in that if you give your word on something, that’s all it takes,” Leahy said.
McConnell is half of a Washington power couple. His wife is Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.