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Player of the Week: Mitch McConnell

Outside of the Capitol and Kentucky, Mitch McConnell isn't exactly a household name. Though he is the Senate's top Republican, he has no interest in running for president, doesn't pop up much on the Sunday talk shows and generally keeps his voice -- and his profile -- down.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
Master of Senate rules.

But he knows Senate rules as well as anyone, and he knows that the chamber is set up so the minority party can wreak all kinds of havoc with the majority's best-laid plans. Bookish and low-key, McConnell generally prefers to operate behind the scenes, and that's what he did this week in stymieing Democrats on two hot-button issues -- Iraq and housing -- making him Capitol Briefing's Player of the Week.

McConnell's occasional tendency to fade into the background doesn't always help him. Last year, he prompted some grumbling from fellow Republicans when he refused to take a more public role in the fight over immigration reform. And he hasn't always been as outspoken on Iraq as some in his party would prefer. But this week, McConnell's moves behind closed doors mattered more than any press conference or floor speech did.

When the week began, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) goal was to hold preliminary test votes on two Iraq bills sponsored by antiwar Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), and then quickly move on to a housing foreclosure bill when the Senate failed to invoke cloture on the Iraq bills.

Reid and most fellow Democrats actually didn't really want to deal with Feingold's Iraq measures, one of which would cut off most funds for the war 120 days after enactment, while the other would require President Bush to produce a comprehensive report on fighting al-Qaeda. The first bill was particularly controversial, but it also seemed doomed to defeat, as similar measures have repeatedly failed by overwhelming margins to get the 60 votes necessary to invoke cloture and begin debate on final passage. Reid had told Feingold he would get a chance to bring up his bills, and Democrats figured it wouldn't take long to dispose of them and move on to housing.

But things didn't go as planned. After some GOP leadership strategy sessions Tuesday, McConnell instructed Republicans to vote in favor of cloture so they could have a full-fledged debate on the Iraq funding bill. The tactic worked, as the Senate voted 70-24 in favor of cloture with 43 of the chamber's 46 Republicans voting "aye." Then 42 Republicans joined 45 Democrats in voting to proceed with debate on the second bill.

McConnell's aim was two-fold. First, he wanted to mess with Reid's plans and delay his bringing up the housing bill. Second, Republicans wanted to use the debate to highlight what they see as measurable progress, at least on the military front, in Iraq. The result was that Iraq got plenty of news coverage this week it wouldn't otherwise have gotten, and Democrats were put in the unusual position of accusing the GOP of stalling tactics for wanting to debate a bill the Democrats themselves had put on the calendar. After two days of debate, Reid ended up pulling both bills without a final vote.

Then it was on to the housing bill, which Reid had wanted to debate Tuesday but was instead pushed back to Thursday. The package, assembled by the Majority Leader himself, provides grants for local communities to purchase subprime mortgages and foreclosed properties, and would also allow bankruptcy judges to rewrite the terms of home mortgages to prevent foreclosures. With the housing market cratering and foreclosure rates up, Democrats believed they had a real shot at pushing through their reforms.

But the mortgage industry strongly opposed the changes to bankruptcy law, and McConnell helped keep his fellow Republicans in line against the bill. Democrats did get the chance to lambast the GOP and the Bush administration's policies, but they were unable to pressure Republicans to join them . The Senate voted 48-46 Thursday to halt the GOP's filibuster of the bill, falling well short of the 60-vote threshold. Only one Republican -- Sen. Gordon Smith (Ore.) -- voted with Democrats to invoke cloture.

Reid has vowed to bring the housing package back, but the bottom line is that he failed to move a bill on a hot-button issue through the chamber, after losing two days to an Iraq debate he didn't want to have.

There was plenty of news this week on other fronts: Indicted Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) announced he would not resign his seat; House Democrats' attempt to push through an ethics reform bill fell apart; the House passed an energy tax bill, and the two parties continued to argue over updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

But on an individual level, the nondescript McConnell's efforts to frustrate Reid's plans were especially worthy of attention -- and the Player of the Week award.

By Ben Pershing  |  February 29, 2008; 1:40 PM ET
Categories:  Player of the Week  
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