Does Mitch McConnell Speak Parseltongue?

As I mentioned earlier this week, I’m interested in reading old, deep dive magazine articles that are available on the web. To demonstrate this, I threw up a bunch of links to articles in the Washington Monthly’s meager online archives that had caught my eye. Yesterday, I read one of the articles, a profile of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that previewed the hard-edged partisan parliamentary style that could be expected when he took over for Bill Frist as the top Republican in the Senate in 2007.

The article opens with an anecdote illustrating McConnell’s penchant for tactics that are within the rules of the Senate but abuse the norms by which his colleagues tend to operate:

The party was not in total agreement, however. Earlier that week, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) had filed a sweeping amendment to a defense bill requiring all U.S. troops to be pulled out of Iraq by July 2007. Knowing his measure would attract little support as written, and hoping to maintain a unified Democratic message, Kerry had informed Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who was managing the defense bill, that he was not yet ready to offer it for a vote. Warner agreed to give Kerry more time, then left the Capitol building to attend a memorial service at the Pentagon for victims of 9/11.

Soon afterwards, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate number two, rose to speak, his light blue tie elegantly setting off the pinstripes. A pale, graying, and somewhat slight man of 64, McConnell looks more like a financial planner than a politician. He has an unblinking, vaguely android-like stare and gives the impression, even when speaking, of wanting to avoid being noticed. But today, he could not keep a hint of a smile from flickering across his normally impassive features. “Colleagues on the other side have said they were going to offer an amendment to advocate withdrawal by the end of the year,” he reminded the chamber. “Let’s have that debate.” With that, McConnell took Kerry’s measure, scratched out the Democrat’s name, replaced it with his own, and offered it for a vote.

The move seemed to take even McConnell’s Republican colleagues by surprise. Frist, who had just arrived on the floor—white spats complementing the seersucker—referred to the “Kerry amendment,” and appeared momentarily confused when told that the pending measure was now, in fact, the McConnell amendment. Even C-SPAN was fooled, informing viewers in an on-screen graphic that the Senate was considering the Kerry amendment. Whatever its name, the measure was rejected by a vote of 93-6. Democrats denounced what Kerry called a “fictitious vote,” and even Warner tried to distance himself from McConnell’s maneuver, informing his colleagues that it had been carried out in his absence.

McConnell, though, was unashamed. He stood, grinning, on the Senate floor for a long time, his hands clasped placidly in front of him as if at church, as colleagues came up to chat—one gave him a congratulatory pat on the back as he passed. Then he took a victory lap around the press gallery, telling reporters “it has been interesting to watch the Democrats have this debate within their caucus,” while Kerry and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) struggled to respond. As McConnell anticipated, the storyline that emerged in news reports over the next few days was that the Senate had overwhelmingly rejected a quick Iraq pullout and that the Iraq issue was uniting Republicans and dividing Democrats.

McConnell’s tactic of pushing for votes on Democratic-penned legislation before Democrats have coalesced themselves should sound familiar to current Congress watchers.

Earlier this month, McConnell challenged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to hold a vote on President Obama’s jobs bill before Democrats had finished adjusting the legislation in order to gain wide caucus support for it. Reid blocked the vote, gaining unfriendly headlines for Democrats. But that wasn’t the end of McConnell’s efforts. He used arcane Senate procedure to force a procedural vote that could be construed in press releases as a vote on the bill, which led to some very in the weeds maneuvering that essentially resulted in the Democrats setting a new precedent in interpreting the Senate’s cloture rule.

One other anecdote that popped out to me in the Washington Monthly profile is how McConnell can come off as though he enjoys playing the bad guy:

The campaign-finance fight also brought out McConnell’s willingness—even eagerness—to absorb negative attention on behalf of colleagues. For all of his personal colorlessness, he appeared to relish his role as the bete noir of the reform movement. After the good government group Common Cause labeled him the “Darth Vader of campaign-finance reform” in 1997, he opened a press conference by declaring, with a hint of a smile, “Darth Vader has arrived.” But the humor concealed a serious purpose. McConnell understood at the time that many GOP senators feared the end of soft money but were afraid of the negative publicity that opposing McCain’s crusade would bring. By volunteering to play the bad cop—confident about his own reelection prospects as the most powerful political figure in an increasingly red state (see “Bluegrass Baron”)—McConnell gained crucial support within the caucus. “There were a lot of his colleagues who supported the same goal he had, who were appreciative that somebody was out there doing it and they didn’t have to,” says a former Senate leadership aide.

I found this interesting in light of how McConnell has been compared to a James Bond villain for his apparent willingness to reveal his machinations. Who will be the first to compare him to Voldemort?

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