What does Mitch McConnell’s political past mean for the Senate’s future?

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    With the seating of the new Congress this week, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell has become the leader of his chamber and one of the most powerful people in the country.

    But even to some who cover him closely, McConnell can seem like an enigma.

    We asked our political editor and reporter, Lisa Desjardins, to bring us a closer look at the man now under more of the spotlight.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    When Mitch McConnell took the podium as Senate leader this week…

  • SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, Majority Leader:

    Today is an important day for our country.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    … it was also a day that he had worked for, for over half-a-century.

    AL CROSS, University of Kentucky: Apparently, from the beginning of his adult life, he wanted to be the majority leader of the United States Senate.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    That's Al Cross, longtime Kentucky reporter now at the University of Kentucky. We will talk to him more, but, first, some background.

    McConnell's childhood is a map of the South. Born in Alabama, he contracted polio and his mother took him to Warm Springs, Georgia, made famous by FDR, for treatment. The family later settled in Louisville, Kentucky, where McConnell would go to college and write his thesis on Henry Clay, one of the great Senate leaders, who McConnell studied diligently.

  • AL CROSS:

    He is one of the best students of politics this country has ever had. I mean, he reads extensively about politicians. He cannot just read a poll. He can write a poll.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    And that may help explain how McConnell has survived sometimes open mocking, including this just last night on "The Daily Show."

    JON STEWART, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart": He's wearing his festive swearing-in shell.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • AL CROSS:

    He's not your typical politician. He's not much to look at. He doesn't have much charisma. He started out being called Howdy Doody, and now they call him Yertle the Turtle.

    But he knows how to win elections and he takes his business very seriously.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    And one of young McConnell's first moves in the business of politics was a turn to the right.

  • ALEC MACGILLIS, Former Washington Post Reporter:

    It's interesting. As a young man, he was actually a quite moderate and even somewhat liberal Republican.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    McConnell biographer and journalist Alec MacGillis says McConnell, who once courted the AFL-CIO as an ally, started shifting in 1984, after Ronald Reagan carried Kentucky by hundreds of thousands of votes, while McConnell barely won his Senate race.

  • ALEC MACGILLIS:

    So Mitch McConnell looked at this — at this contrast between his narrow election and Ronald Reagan's very big election, and he thought to himself, you know what? I never want it to be this close again for me. I need to sort of — I need to get on this train, I need to get on this bus of a Republican Party that is moving in a more conservative direction.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    MacGillis argues that McConnell puts winning above all. And that has driven his push against campaign finance reform and for big-dollar fund-raising.

  • ALEC MACGILLIS:

    He wasn't the most natural politician. He is not a very natural candidate, by any stretch of the imagination. And he recognized how important having a lot of money to outspend his opposition would be.

    McConnell, more than just about anyone in Washington today, embodies the permanent campaign mind-set that has kind of taken over Washington these last — last few decades.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    An example that many cite, these words:

  • SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL:

    Our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    This goes to who McConnell is at the core. Those who know him say, yes, he is driven to win, but they insist his focus is to govern.

    Example? Deals over the fiscal cliff that McConnell made with Vice President Biden.

  • TRENT LOTT, Former Senate Majority Leader:

    If you go back and look over the last three years, there have been only two major, really big agreements that were reached and done. Both of them were done with the leadership of Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden, not the president, not anybody else but Mitch McConnell.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Trent Lott is himself a former GOP Senate majority leader, and he worked with McConnell for years. We wanted to talk to Lott especially to get past McConnell's public enigma, to talk about who he is as a person.

  • TRENT LOTT:

    I'm much more garrulous, and backslapping and that — like to have a good laugh, like to sing, love a good joke. I'm just much more of an outward sort of personality, for better or for worse. And, sometimes, it can get you in trouble.

    He is more reserved. He is very thoughtful. And he has a unique a ability to listen. I think, if you go back and study leadership and the history of leaders, some of the greatest leaders were somewhat stoic.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    And, of course, McConnell is a student of the past, not just of the great compromiser, Henry Clay, he also talks about Alben Barkley, who pushed back against Franklin Roosevelt and presidential power, and Democrat Mike Mansfield, known for crafting a professional, active Senate.

    Speaking recently to public television affiliate KET in Kentucky, McConnell explained what he takes from these men: Get things done.

  • SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL:

    If you can't figure a way to bring people together and to reach some kind of compromise to advance the interests of country, you can't accomplish anything at all.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Let's stop there a second. We hear that word a lot, but compromise is mostly a theory right now. What exactly is McConnell's plan to get there?

    Today, in his first address as leader, McConnell said he wants to reopen vigorous Senate debate.

  • SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL:

    We need to open up, open up the legislative process in a way that allows more amendments from both sides. Sometimes, it's going to be meaning — it will mean working late. But restoring the Senate is the right thing to do.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Lott says the keys to McConnell are determination and tenacity.

  • TRENT LOTT:

    Mitch has a really good sense for timing. And he will wait until hell freezes over to make the right move, waiting for the right moment. And he has the ability to sense that.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    One more factor, how long McConnell has waited for and strategized for this moment.

  • AL CROSS:

    Mitch McConnell has finally grabbed the brass ring. This is what he's looked for all his life. And now he's going to prove that he ain't the dog that caught the car, that he knows what to do with this job.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And Lisa joins us now.

    So, Yertle the Turtle, what he's nicknamed.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But he is seriously successful. So what does he want to do with this power?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Incredible.

    He wants to change how the Senate operates. In the last couple of years, the Senate has not operated under what is called regular order. Instead, Harry Reid used rules to ensure that you couldn't really propose amendments if you were a single senator. That's one thing that McConnell wants to change. He wants to open up debate, so if you were — you and I were a senator, we could bring up any proposal we wanted if it was germane to a bill.

    McConnell argues that that allows the Senate to hash it out and come up with good legislation. Now, it's messy. It means Democrats will take votes that they might not want to take, Republicans the same. McConnell says that is how the Senate should operate best. We will see.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So do people think it can happen?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Glad you asked, because there has already been a speed bump just in the first two days of the Senate.

    The Democrats have blocked the ability of Republicans to hold a committee hearing on the Keystone pipeline. It's just going to delay things it. But already, what's happened then is, McConnell has sped up the process on the Keystone pipeline. He says, ultimately, they won't come to that.

    But it is signs, Judy, of the fact that, in theory, sure, it would be great if the Senate hashed everything out, but the politics are so tight right now, it's not clear that they can.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We heard Trent Lott say that he is reserved. But you were telling me you have covered Senator McConnell, and that he has a sense of humor.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    I was fortunate to meet in small groups with Senator McConnell for — several times as a radio reporter.

    He has a great sense of humor. But it's very dry, as I think people would expect. But he does have a very good sense of humor. My husband is constantly surprised when I say that. But it's true. He does.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, we will be looking for that in the months to come.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    OK.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Lisa Desjardins, we thank you.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Sure.

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