Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is leading the charge against health care overhaul.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is leading the charge against health care overhaul. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
An epic legislative battle over health care is nearing a final showdown on Capitol Hill. For many, the man leading the Republican onslaught against that legislation is not a household name. Nor is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell much of a fire breather.
But week after week and month after month, he has steadfastly erected a wall of GOP opposition and convinced fellow Republicans that betting on failure could bring big wins in November.
"I think he is the leading opponent, and probably for the Republicans nationally on health care reform," says Washington University congressional expert Steven Smith.
Won't Change His Tune In Favor Of Compromise
Ask McConnell whether he sees himself as leading the charge against health care, and the Kentucky Republican says he is simply the GOP leader in the Senate.
"What I try to do is to help get all of our members on message. It's sort of like being a choir director and most of the time somebody's singing off-key, but on this issue — miraculously — we have been 100 percent together that this was a mistake for the country," McConnell says.
McConnell proudly points to the more than 90 floor speeches he has made against the Democrats' health care overhaul. He delivers one like clockwork virtually every day that the Senate is in session. And if they begin to all sound the same, that's because they pretty much are.
The way to break through, McConnell says, is to say things consistently and, yes, over and over.
"We typically do things with great repetition," he says.
Backed By The GOP
McConnell's fellow GOP senators have nothing but praise for his leadership.
"McConnell is doing a great job, and I think I've seen his passion level rise higher than I've seen it since I've been in here," said South Carolina's Jim DeMint, one of the most conservative Republicans.
DeMint and every other Senate Republican have stuck with their leader in every Senate floor vote against the Democrats' health care legislation. And Rutgers University's Ross Baker does not expect any defections in the votes to come.
"You've got a large number of Republican senators calculating that McConnell is right, that the consistency of the message is politically astute, and they're going to stay with him," Baker says.
The biggest test of GOP unity will come in what's expected to be the final act of the health care saga, a bill making corrections to legislation the Senate passed on Christmas Eve.
A Little Too 'Inside Baseball'
Democrats hope to muscle the health care bill through using a filibuster-proof procedure known as reconciliation. McConnell has been portraying the move as defying the popular will.
"What about public opinion?" McConnell says. "Do our friends in the majority not understand? The American people are saying loud and clear they don't want us to do this."
Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, has punched back, pointing to McConnell's own voting record.
"He has voted for 13 of 17 reconciliation bills during his time in the Senate," Durbin says. "He did not consider this procedure objectionable 13 different occasions when he voted for it."
But arguing over votes on an arcane procedure has not seemed to resonate much beyond the Senate chamber. Baker says McConnell has cast this fight as the Democrats against everyone else, and it's an argument many polls would seem to back up.
"I think he feels that he's got ... public opinion on his side, and I believe he thinks that this is going to continue and that there really won't be much of a turnaround before November," Baker says.
The Final Referendum
McConnell himself insists that the opposition he leads against the health care legislation is not just about winning more seats for Republicans in November. It's also, he says, about the nation's health care. But he is clearly hoping for electoral dividends.
"There's an overwhelming likelihood that every race in the country is going to be a referendum on this issue this fall if this passes," McConnell says.
That's a referendum McConnell is betting Republicans will win.