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At age 72, after 30 years in the U.S. Senate, Mitch McConnell is set to realize his life's ambition. He never wanted to be president. He just wanted to be majority leader, and come January, McConnell will finally have a chance to shape the chamber that he says he deeply loves. He declared his first priority will be to make what's been called a paralyzed Senate function again. But, as NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, the politician who became the face of obstruction over the last four years will have to persuade Democrats to cooperate.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: When you walk into Mitch McConnell's front office at the Capitol, the first thing you will 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.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Clay obviously has a special place in the lives of many Kentuckians, and particularly somebody like me who ended up being in the Senate.
CHANG: Two years ago on Kentucky Public Television, McConnell paid tribute to the man who helped broker pre-Civil War deals with states that had diametrically opposed interests.
MCCONNELL: The way Clay operated, a marvelous combination of compromise and principle, is a lesson for the ages if you're a public official.
CHANG: It's a lesson McConnell says he wants to bring back to the Senate. Here he was one day after the election.
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MCCONNELL: The Senate, in the last few years, basically doesn't do anything. We don't even vote.
CHANG: Well, many blame McConnell for that. He did, after all, once declare his top priority was to make President 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.
SARAH BINDER: If this is the last rung of his political aspirations, then perhaps he has an incentive to make the place work - right? - to make senators proud of it again.
CHANG: But Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution says Democrats who suffered under McConnell's tactics the last six years might be a little suspicious of Mitch McConnell, the sudden institutionalist.
BINDER: 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.
CHANG: 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, says that's why he was drawn to politics.
HUNTER BATES: 'Cause politics was a game where there were winners and losers and you kept score and every play mattered.
CHANG: But friends say the relentless competitor always kept the bigger picture in mind, never wasting energy on minor skirmishes. Here's another former chief of staff, Billy Piper.
BILLY PIPER: He often says that the most important word in the English language is focus, and I've never seen anybody be able to maintain that focus no matter what's going on.
CHANG: Piper remembers McConnell never being a yeller, even if a staffer deserved it. Piper would walk in with bad news, and there would be no perceptible reaction.
PIPER: 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, you know, because his view is you're up one day, you're down the next. And you've just got to keep moving forward as best you can.
CHANG: But moving inexorably forward now means something else to the man who's gotten his dream job. He now 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. Retired Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas says that's precisely his gift.
KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: He's very smart. He is very strategic, and he can find a common ground between warring factions.
CHANG: But, she says, he knows how to push people towards a consensus. McConnell has been a dealmaker at times. He helped forge the 2012 fiscal cliff deal and more recently helped end last October's government shutdown. But Democrats are quick to point out he also led more than 500 filibusters against them since Obama took office. Sarah Binder says McConnell can only hope Democrats don't retaliate in kind.
BINDER: Henry Clay hated the filibuster, right? He knew that it was preventing his whip majority from getting anything done.
CHANG: So ironically, if Democrats do get their revenge on McConnell with filibusters, he'll have one more thing in common with his Kentucky hero. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.
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