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McConnell proves biggest hurdle for Dems

Democrats may be in charge of the Senate these days, yet Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is no powerless bystander.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., center, has been in the minority for a little more than a month, but an emotion-charged fight in Congress over Iraq would show the Republican leader from Kentucky was far from powerless.Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Democrats may be in charge of the Senate these days, yet Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is no powerless bystander.

The Kentucky Republican made that clear when, despite grumbling from within his own ranks, he engineered the two-week standoff over Iraq and allowed the House to move first to challenge President Bush's troop buildup.

Then, when a nonbinding resolution opposing the buildup finally came to the Senate, the Democrats couldn't muster the 60 votes needed to push the measure through in a rare Saturday session that delayed senators from leaving for the weeklong President's Day recess.

Despite the Democrats' 51-49 majority - counting two independents who generally vote with the Democrats - the 65-year-old Republican leader might be viewed as the most powerful member of the new Congress.

The taciturn but forceful Kentuckian can block legislation that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., tries to bring up for a vote. All he needs is 40 Republicans to vote with him. That's because Senate rules effectively require a 60-vote supermajority to get to an up-and-down simple majority vote on most matters, rules that Democrats also have used effectively in the past when they were in the minority.

They give McConnell, or any minority party leader, the power to shape legislation.

Stylistically, McConnell is not a natural at being out front. He knows policy, politics and Senate procedure cold. That's reflected in the way he speaks in public - when he expounds publicly at all.

Yet, during the standoff over Iraq, he had plenty to say.

He insisted Republicans would not be ignored. He made it clear that he would not allow Reid a straight up-or-down vote on Bush's troop escalation, insisting that Reid also allow a vote on an alternative resolution on funding the troops that is more palatable to Republicans.

So Republicans used parliamentary measures to keep Democrats from taking up a debate leading to a final vote. Democrats accused McConnell of protecting Bush over an unpopular war, but the GOP leader refused to budge.

A warning of future battles?
However exasperating to his colleagues - including at least seven Republicans who wanted to take up the war resolution - the stalemate was McConnell's early notice to Reid and other Democrats.

"Senate Republicans are going to insist on fair treatment," McConnell declared.

His point was made. If McConnell could mire colleagues in arguments over who gets to speak first in a debate about Iraq, he and the minority Republicans will also be a factor in future debates over other key items on the Democrats' agenda, including prescription drugs and the budget.

Time for second thoughts
"We're very close (in) numbers here, and we have some differences, and we have to have an opportunity to talk about different kinds of things," said Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo. "Hopefully, that's what this is all about."

The nation's founders might applaud, according to Senate historian Donald Ritchie.

They set up the House to be an institution where the majority rules. Members there represent districts of nearly identical population. In the Senate, where members represent states with populations of different sizes, James Madison particularly wanted measured consideration that engaged all parties.

"Madison felt very strongly that you needed time for second thoughts," Ritchie said.

Still, it is unclear how long McConnell can hold his Republicans together - and when Democrats might peel away enough Republicans to get the 60 votes needed to bring the Iraq resolution up for debate and a vote on its merits.

Noting that the House churned through the Iraq resolution and passed it in under four days, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., last week lamented the prospect of having to explain to his constituents the Senate's plodding.

"I'm finding it difficult, really impossible, to answer my constituents about what the Senate is doing," Specter said, although adding that he agrees with McConnell in principle. "I tell them we're debating whether we're going to have a debate, and they can't understand what we're doing."