The immigration debate has brought a number of Republican Senators to the forefront, especially Jeff Sessions, Lindsey Graham, Jim DeMint, and James Inhofe. The man who some might have expected on the front lines, however, has taken an ever-lower profile during the fracas Mitch McConnell, the highly effective Minority Leader, has unexpectedly transformed into a wallflower:
With his caucus bitterly divided and the Senate descending into procedural warfare, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) stayed away from the Senate floor as the most sweeping overhaul of immigration laws in 21 years hung in the balance.
Facing the biggest challenge of his leadership tenure, McConnell has largely chosen to work behind the scenes and instead allow a bloc of conservatives to spar with Republican supporters of the bill. …
Since the bipartisan negotiators and the White House reached a deal on the bill last month, opposition on the right has been growing. That has put Republicans who are up for reelection, including McConnell, in an uncomfortable position as the White House has launched an all-out push to give President Bush a major victory in his final months in office.
McConnell’s absence from the fight highlighted his lukewarm feeling on the bill. He is neither an advocate nor a staunch critic of the bill, and has not said how he would vote on the underlying bill. The senator voted against efforts to shut down debate earlier this month, but voted Tuesday on a motion to proceed to debating the bill. Last year he voted for the measure that passed the Senate but failed to clear Congress.
Publicly, McConnell has tried to limit talking about the issue. Reporters who pepper him with questions about immigration legislation often are greeted with silence. And recently he cut short a news conference on energy issues once questions turned to the immigration bill.
The newfound stoicism has its merits, on at least two bases. McConnell has to run for re-election in conservative Kentucky next year, and as the song says, it doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. He wants to leave his options open, and he’s doing a good job of it by confounding anyone who wants to know where he actually stands on the bill.
On the political side, it’s almost certainly genius. He has worked with the White House, as his job requires, to assist them in getting their policy onto the Senate floor. That’s as fas as he’s going to go publicly for either George Bush or Harry Reid. The Majority Leader complained about getting the blame for the arrogant and unprecedented process being used for the immigration bill, telling people that McConnell agreed to it beforehand. That may be true, but it isn’t McConnell on the Senate floor trying to defend forcing a vote on a bill that hadn’t even been correctly published yet. McConnell has hung the process firmly around Reid’s neck.
Unfortunately for McConnell, he’s going to have to choose sides today. While one more procedural hurdle could trip the bill after this cloture vote, today’s opportunity holds the most promise for actually killing the bill. The Quiet Man will have to speak up and be counted.