STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
Here's a story of what happens after the new Congress gets its first rush of success.
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): On this vote the yeas are 299. The nays are 128. The bill is passed.
INSKEEP: The Democratic House has been passing bills all week. One would enact proposals from the 9/11 Commission, another would raise the minimum wage.
Rep. PELOSI: The yeas are 315. The nays are 115. The bill is passed.
INSKEEP: Notice we said the bills would enact changes. They would if they ever become law, which they won't unless they get through the Senate, which, not surprisingly, approved very little of consequence this week.
Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Nothing happens as quickly in the Senate, which has been variably frustrating to the majority in the Senate and liberating to the minority.
INSKEEP: That's a member of the liberated minority, Senator Mitch McConnell. Republicans voted him their leader after last year's election defeat. His weakened party can still stop Senate business, which means Democrats must outmaneuver or accommodate the senior senator from Kentucky.
Mr. TOM DASCHLE (Former Republican Senator): He has the power to say we can do this the easy way or the hard way.
INSKEEP: There's a man who should know, former senator Tom Daschle. He led Democrats for years when their party was in the minority.
Mr. DASCHLE: The easy way of course is to say let's agree, let's find some compromise here procedurally, and let's both get the things we want to do. The hard way is for the majority leader to say I'm going to do this regardless of what you think. And if you want to fight it, go ahead. And the hard way takes a long, long time.
INSKEEP: A long time because you can stop to Senate by skillfully using its rules. Kentucky journalist Al Cross says the new Republican leader spent decades learning those rules.
Mr. AL CROSS (Journalist): Politics is the guy's life. He really relishes the battle of ideas and philosophies and the competition.
INSKEEP: Mitch McConnell remembers witnessing that competition when he worked in the Senate as an intern.
Sen. MCCONNELL: It was the summer of 1964; it was the great civil rights debates. I was there in the mailroom when those exciting things were occurring.
INSKEEP: Did you know you wanted to come back?
Sen. MCCONNELL: Well, I hoped at that time that maybe I would have a chance to be United States senator someday, and fortunately it has worked out.
INSKEEP: Journalist Al Cross says that as a Republican in a Democratic state, the future senator had to make it work out.
Mr. CROSS: Mr. McConnell is the author and finisher of the modern Republican Party in the commonwealth of Kentucky. First, he ousted an incumbent United States senator, then he won reelection securing his position. He promptly went to work beginning to have influence in the party, helping pick a candidate for governor in 1991, taking over the party organization the next couple of years.
INSKEEP: And getting involved in hardball campaigns. Republican campaigns included vivid commercials. There was the ad featuring hound dogs hunting a Democrat who missed votes in the Senate.
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Unidentified Man #1: Medidi Huddleson(ph). Thank you very much. Come on.
Unidentified Man #2: We can't find Dee(ph).
INSKEEP: Then there was the ad that showed a Democrat gesturing wildly on stage.
Mr. CROSS: Acting like Adolph Hitler. Even had the music of Wagner playing in the background, "Ride of the Valkyries".
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Unidentified Man #3: (Unintelligible) No. No. We won't talk about that.
INSKEEP: Today, the longtime senator is part of a power couple. His wife is Elaine Chao, the secretary of labor. He's led election campaigns for Senate Republicans, which means he is an expert at raising money. He was not known for leadership on major issues until he took on one related to that fundraising experience.
Sen. MCCONNELL: This bill is fatally unconstitutional, Mr. President. I hope senators will uphold the oaths they've taken and oppose this unconstitutional bill.
INSKEEP: When the Senate tried to restrict big political donations in 2001, McConnell spent hours on the Senate floor trying to keep the rules as they were. He offered mock congratulations to his fellow Republican John McCain who sponsored the plan.
Sen. MCCONNELL: I often say it ranks right up there with static cling as one of the great concerns among the American people. But through the sheer tenacity of the senior senator from Arizona, we are here today beginning a debate over the next two weeks on a subject of very little interest to the American people.
INSKEEP: McConnell's side lost, but he took his appeals all the way to the Supreme Court. And one of his Senate opponents, Tom Daschle, offers him respect.
Mr. DASCHLE: And I have to admit, some of the things that he said have been born out. Basically, he said this is going to be ineffective, and by and large I don't think it had nearly the impact many of us had hoped it might.
INSKEEP: We met Mitch McConnell in the spacious office suite he now occupies in the Capitol. He's a soft-spoken man with round glasses that give him a studious look. He has decorated his lobby walls with portraits of past Republican presidents and a painting of Henry Clay. That's a 19th century senator from Kentucky whose desk McConnell has used on the Senate floor.
INSKEEP: Is there some way that he's a role model for you, Henry Clay?
Sen. MCCONNELL: Well certainly he was called the great compromiser. Clay was the architect of the compromises of 1820 and 1850, which put off the inevitable, which finally happened in 1861 with the Civil War.
INSKEEP: He was also a tough political fighter when he needed to be.
Sen. MCCONNELL: Well, he knew there's a time to be partisan and a time to compromise and move forward on behalf of the country.
INSKEEP: Is that the way it is for you now?
Sen. MCCONNELL: I think that is the way it is now. I mean, there's some things that are a matter of principle that I think are not likely to be negotiated away. And in a body where 41 senators can basically prevent something from happening, that will happen from time to time.
INSKEEP: As long as they have 41 votes, Republicans can filibuster - talk any bill to death. Former minority leader Tom Daschle knows how important that number can be.
What defined when you were able to win and when you didn't have the power to win?
Mr. DASCHLE: Unity. The degree to which you have unity is the degree to which you have power.
INSKEEP: The new Republican leader Mitch McConnell has 49 Republican votes, meaning he can afford to lose a few. But he insists he will not automatically stop Democratic plans.
Sen. MCCONNELL: Well, my goal will be to put together 41 Republicans. Now, sometimes you put together 41 for the purpose of negotiating, sometimes you put together 41 for the purpose of stopping. And it will depend on whether the issue is one upon which there are deeply partisan differences.
INSKEEP: Can you identify something that you feel you've learned from watching the last minority leader, Harry Reid, and the way that he worked in opposition to you?
Sen. MCCONNELL: Well, what the minority leader in the Senate can do, of course, is block everything and then blame the majority for not being able to do anything. And my good friend, Harry, to his credit, was basically able to do that the last six months of last year. And he knows I could do that as well. I choose not to.
INSKEEP: When I listen to you I do feel that I hear a slight difference in philosophy or approach. A couple of years ago, Republicans were on a winning streak, talking about changing the rules of the game, getting things that they'd been pushing for for years and years and been frustrated by Democrats. And I hear you talking more about the long term and that everybody will end up having the flip that you've had to make from being in the majority to the minority at some point in their life.
Sen. MCCONNELL: One of my favorite sayings in politics is you meet the same people on the way down you did on the way up. No majority is permanent. I've been here 22 years and I started off in the majority, then went into the minority, came back in the majority, went into the minority, came back into the majority and I'm now in the minority again. The great thing about the Senate is that it's tilted toward the minority.
INSKEEP: The minority leader is urging Democrats to take on issues like immigration and Social Security. That means he is promoting the controversial agenda of a not-so-popular president. McConnell also says that if Democrats try to block funding for the war in Iraq, he will filibuster. He's powerful enough to do that, though only as long as his party stays unified behind him.
Sen. MCCONNELL: Good afternoon, everyone. Let me just say, the most important issue this week is clearly Iraq...
INSKEEP: Early this week, Senator McConnell met reporters in a vaulted Capitol hallway and one of our congressional correspondents called our attention to what was not said. McConnell invited some other Republicans to defend the president's war plans.
Sen. MCCONNELL: I think that's what the American people would like to have. Trent?
Senator TRENT LOTT (Republican, Mississippi): I don't think I have (unintelligible)...
Sen. MCCONNELL: Anybody else want to (unintelligible)...
INSKEEP: Whatever the reason, the Republican leader was the only one who spoke up for the Iraq policy. It was just a news conference, but it was also a small reminder that Mitch McConnell's job could be a lonely one.
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INSKEEP: You can find more about Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and profiles of other congressional leaders in Congress at npr.org.