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Looking At Mitch McConnell's Leadership In The Senate

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is known as a shrewd political operator. You can count on him to enforce strict party loyalty. But the health care saga in the Senate in which Republicans failed to repeal or replace the Affordable Care Act might have exposed the outer limit of McConnell's ability to control members of his party. We are joined now by Alec MacGillis, a reporter at ProPublica who's written a biography of McConnell called "The Cynic: The Political Education Of Mitch McConnell." Thanks for coming on the program.

ALEC MACGILLIS: Well, thanks for having me, Don.

GONYEA: OK. So when McConnell gets described in the press, it's like the words master technician or master tactician are part of his name. Can you explain how he got that reputation?

MACGILLIS: Well, he got that reputation over the years largely while he was leading his party in the minority. It was, of course, during the Obama years where he was so, so effective as a party leader who pulled the party together to lead the obstruction of the Obama agenda. And just very deft at keeping this whole team together in that obstruction mode, learning how to sort of defer - continue to defer Obama's agenda so that it became getting bogged down and became something that kind of soured in the minds of the American people. It's now - what we saw this week is how much more difficult it is to be a tactician in the affirmative and to actually be pushing for your own agenda.

That's something that Mitch McConnell's actually not done that much of. Even back in 2007, when he was - when he had the - you know, a Republican in the White House, George Bush, Bush wanted to pass a big immigration reform bill back then. And McConnell, as the leader of the Republican caucus, really kind of (??) himself from that whole effort. Just - it just was not really serving as a leader on the floor. So you're seeing this week that he actually did not really have that much experience in pulling together the team for something to actually get something done.

GONYEA: So health care overhaul - it's been a GOP priority since the Affordable Care Act passed without a single Republican vote. Why couldn't McConnell produce a bill his party could agree on?

MACGILLIS: Well a lot of it has to do with the nature of health care itself. This issue is just a really tough one for the Republicans because you had a bill that, for all their rhetoric against a law - for all their rhetoric against it over the years - actually was helping a lot of Americans. And so once you kind of got past that - all that Obamacare's-killing-America rhetoric and started to look at how to repeal it and take things away, you're going to be hurting people. And that was clear to at least some members of the Republican caucus who were having a really hard time going along with it. On top of that, you had some real misgivings among the Republican caucus about how McConnell was going about this bill, just the process of the bill.

In order to get it done, McConnell was having to - and without engendering too much opposition, McConnell was having to really, you know, do a lot of sleights of hand - no hearings, you know, rushing bills through without barely - without having a CBO score. And a lot of these - even his own members were upset about that. And I think you're really going to see this might be something that's going to continue to linger for him - some real resentment in his own caucus about the norms that he was kind of smashing on his way to try and get this done.

GONYEA: And just quickly, how bruising do you think this week was for McConnell personally and politically? Less influence going forward?

MACGILLIS: I think it was quite bruising. You know, the funny thing about McConnell is that he's always been someone who deferred - you know, sort of defers everything to the next election. That's his mindset. You know, he's always trying to set yourself up for the next election. Here is a case where he was trying to actually get something done, even if it was maybe going to hurt you in the next election. And he was not able to. So that's a real loss.

GONYEA: That's Alec MacGillis. He reports for ProPublica. His book is "The Cynic." Thanks for joining us.

MACGILLIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.