90.1 FM San Luis Obispo | 91.7 FM Paso Robles | 91.1 FM Cayucos | 95.1 FM Lompoc | 90.9 FM Avila
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Mitch McConnell's Mission: Making The Senate Work Again

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky walks to his office to meet with new GOP senators-elect at the Capitol on Wednesday.
J. Scott Applewhite
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky walks to his office to meet with new GOP senators-elect at the Capitol on Wednesday.

At 72, after 30 years in the U.S. Senate, Mitch McConnell has finally realized his life's ambition.

He never wanted to be president — he just wanted to be Senate majority leader. And when he ascends to that perch come January, McConnell will finally have a chance to shape the chamber he says he deeply loves. McConnell declared his first priority will be to make what's been called a paralyzed Senate function again. But the politician who became the face of obstruction over the past four years will have to persuade Democrats to cooperate.

Channeling Henry Clay

When you walk into McConnell's front office at the Capitol, the first thing you see on your right is a looming portrait of Henry Clay, the legendary Kentucky senator. Take a few more steps, and you'll notice that same portrait reflected in the mirror above the fireplace on your left — so his face is on either side of you.

Clay surrounds the visitor standing in the center of McConnell's space.

Two years ago on Kentucky Educational Television, McConnell paid tribute to the famed orator who helped broker pre-Civil War deals with states that had diametrically opposed interests.

"Clay obviously has a special place in the lives of many Kentuckians, and particularly somebody like me who ended up being in the Senate and looks to a person like Clay for guidance," McConnell said in the interview. "The way Clay operated — a marvelous combination of compromise and principle — is a lesson for the ages if you're a public official."

It's a lesson McConnell says he wants to bring back to the Senate.

"The Senate in the last few years basically doesn't do anything. We don't even vote," McConnell said in a press conference one day after the election.

Many blame McConnell for that. He did, after all, once declare that his top priority was to make Barack Obama a one-term president. Now, he says he wants to see the Senate become the chamber of deliberative debate. He wants to see it pass bills, not resort to procedural gamesmanship.

"This is the last rung of his political aspirations, and perhaps he has an incentive to make the place work — to make senators proud of it again," said Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution.

But Democrats who suffered under McConnell's tactics over the past six years might be a little suspicious of Mitch McConnell, the sudden institutionalist.

"It really takes two cooperative parties to make the Senate work in this sort of fluid, collegial way. And we don't have two cooperative parties," Binder said.

Finding Areas Where Everyone Can Win

As the story often goes, Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. grew up as a fighter. He fought off polio when he was 2, fought off bullies later in childhood, and became a fierce lover of sports. His former Chief of Staff Hunter Bates said that's why McConnell was drawn to politics.

"Because politics was a game where there were winners and losers and you kept score. And every play mattered," Bates said.

But friends say the relentless competitor always kept the bigger picture in mind, never wasting energy on minor skirmishes.

"He often says that the most important word in the English language is 'focus.' And I've never been able to see anyone maintain that focus no matter what's going on," said another former chief of staff, Billy Piper.

As Piper remembers it, McConnell was never a yeller — even if a staffer deserved it. Piper would walk in with bad news, and there would be no perceptible reaction.

"And I'd walk in another time, thinking that I had really wonderful news and couldn't wait to see his positive reaction. He was just as placid," said Piper. "Because his view is, you're up one day, you're down the next, and you just got to keep moving forward as best you can."

But moving inexorably forward now means something else to the man who has gotten his dream job. He wants to make his imprint on the Senate. And if he truly intends to channel someone like Henry Clay, McConnell will have to find areas where everyone can win.

That's precisely his gift, says retired Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. "He's very smart. He's very strategic. And he can find a common ground between warring factions and also has the knack for letting people have their say," said Hutchison, who watched him operate over her two decades in the Senate.

But he also knows how to push people toward a consensus, she says. McConnell has been a deal-maker at times — he helped forge the 2012 fiscal cliff deal, and more recently helped end the October 2013 government shutdown.

Democrats are quick to point out, however, that he has also led more than 500 filibusters against them since Obama took office. Binder says McConnell can only hope they don't retaliate in kind.

"Henry Clay hated the filibuster! He knew that it was preventing his Whig majority from getting anything done," Binder said.

So ironically, if Democrats do get their revenge on McConnell with filibusters, he'll have one more thing in common with his Kentucky hero.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.