Washington — Ask Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to name his role models for his new responsibilities as the leader of Senate Republicans, and the answer is surprising. "Mike Mansfield and George Mitchell," he replied the other day. "I know they're both Democrats, but I admire the way they ran things here."
Mansfield, who was Senate majority leader from 1961 to 1977, took over from Lyndon Johnson and, as McConnell noted, erased Johnson's almost-dictatorial regime and substituted a much more collegial style. Mitchell, who was majority leader from 1989 to 1995, brought down from Maine the studied, judicious approach he had learned as a federal judge.
Both men were effective leaders of their party but were notable also for their willingness to reach across party lines to accomplish legislative goals. Mansfield allowed Everett McKinley Dirksen, his Republican counterpart, to claim most of the credit for the civil rights bills of the 1960s, and he famously began his days by sharing breakfast in the Senate dining room with his close friend, George Aiken, the Republican senator from Vermont. Mitchell as majority leader engineered bipartisan agreements on the savings and loan bailout, a minimum wage increase, a major clean air bill and sweeping immigration reform - all while Republicans held the White House.
Mansfield and Mitchell shared one other trait. Both were intensely aware of the special role of the Senate and its place in the Constitution. Neither was in any way deferential to the president. Mansfield challenged President Johnson publicly and repeatedly on his Vietnam policy, and Mitchell was often a thorn in the side of President George H.W. Bush.
When McConnell was asked, during a visit to The Washington Post last week, what obligation he felt toward the current President Bush, he replied, "I was elected by Senate Republicans and they are the ones to whom I am responsible." While emphasizing that he was in "philosophical agreement" with the president, he clearly sees his role differently than did his predecessor, retiring Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee.
Frist was installed in the leadership job with major help from the Bush White House and often appeared to be more the president's liaison to the Senate than the Senate's leader.
McConnell is in the odd - and potentially awkward - position of having his wife, Elaine Chao, serving as secretary of labor in the president's Cabinet. But he is much more a creature of the Senate than Frist was, and he seems determined to set his own course.
In the interview, McConnell repeatedly stressed his belief that divided government - a Democratic Congress confronting a Republican president - need not produce gridlock. He cited a wide range of issues, from raising the minimum wage to revising ethics rules to reforming immigration and Social Security, where he sees good prospects of legislative agreement.
In judging these words, realists will quickly note McConnell's reputation as a hard-nosed politician and crafty campaign tactician. No one who knows him doubts that high on his agenda is overthrowing the Democrats' shaky two-seat majority in the 2008 Senate elections so that he can become majority leader.
McConnell is no reformer. He has fought Sen. John McCain and other campaign-finance legislation supporters who have tried to rein in fundraising by members of Congress. Earlier this fall, the Lexington Herald-Leader described, in a lengthy series of investigative reports, how McConnell has raised nearly $220 million for himself and other Republicans and how he has served the interests of those who furnished the money.
Cigarette makers, coal operators, casinos and a welter of others have found him with hand out and ready to listen to their legislative needs.
But the same practicality that drives his politics may make him a willing partner in deal-making that can move bills to passage in the closely divided Senate. He is well aware of the power he wields, with 49 votes, in a Senate where Democrats will have to find help across the aisle to pass any controversial bills.
He undoubtedly will block them on some issues, but he is smart enough to recognize the risks if he is solely an obstructionist for the next two years.
When you think of notable Senate leaders you don't automatically think of "Three M's," Mansfield, Mitchell and McConnell. But if Mitch McConnell makes that linkage in his own mind, it's not a bad start.