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Capitol Hill's master tactician

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell speaking at a Kentucky fund-raiser last Friday. The veteran politician is credited by analysts with putting conservative judge Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court bench, even though President Donald Trump regularl
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell speaking at a Kentucky fund-raiser last Friday. The veteran politician is credited by analysts with putting conservative judge Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court bench, even though President Donald Trump regularly claims the feat as one of his top accomplishments.PHOTO: REUTERS

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is man behind Republicans' healthcare Bill

He is a "low-maintenance husband" who cooks and does his own laundry. He is also one of the canniest and most strategic political operators in Washington DC - but Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell may just have overreached in proposing the administration's new healthcare legislation.

The Bill, with its deep federal spending cuts, failed to get enough Republican support to be certain of passing a vote in the Senate.

Mr McConnell was left to bargain with reluctant Republicans worried about angry voters. Failure would mean being forced to bargain with Democrats.

Yet the usually reserved but indomitable Alabama-born, Kentucky-raised 75-year-old whose nickname on Capitol Hill is "the Turtle" has taken far more heat in his decades-long political career.

The healthcare Bill, while risking political blowback in mid-term elections in November next year, is unlikely to be more than a bump on the road for him on course to another big goal - tax reform, which the Republican Party hopes to push through in autumn.

Mr McConnell and his wife, Ms Elaine Chao, 64, who arrived in the US at the age of eight with her young mother aboard a ship from Taiwan in 1961, are one of the most powerful couples in the country.

Ms Chao served as President George W. Bush's labour secretary for two terms - the first female Asian-American in the US Cabinet, and the longest-serving member of Mr Bush's team.

Looked up to by Chinese-Americans, she is now President Donald Trump's transportation secretary - and one of only four women in his Cabinet.

The couple have a close and loving relationship, said a political analyst who knows their history well. Ms Chao told CNN early this year that her husband is "really considerate" and "really very thoughtful".

"They are two very shrewd, smart, hard-working, driven people," said the political analyst who spoke to The Straits Times on condition of anonymity.

"He is not exciting and not flamboyant, not your typical senator. But he is a smart guy and a skilled tactician who knows how to work the levers of the system."

He added: "He was minority leader for years, and he worked out how to use parliamentary tactics to great effect even as a minority leader."

The senator and his wife are well liked in their communities, the analyst said. "Even a lot of Democrat senators like him - because you can have a heated argument with him and still enjoy a glass of bourbon with him later."

As a political tactician, he is peerless in modern times, analysts say. One particular example proves his strategic vision.

In his own words, one of Mr McConnell's proudest moments was when he looked President Barack Obama in the eye and said to him: "Mr President, you will not fill this Supreme Court vacancy."

That decision by Mr McConnell in February last year to refuse to schedule a confirmation hearing for Mr Obama's appointment of a Supreme Court judge to fill the seat left vacant on the death of the conservative judge Antonin Scalia was to have far-reaching consequences.

Stonewalling ensured that a liberal judge - Mr Obama nominated Mr Merrick Garland - would not take a seat. Mr McConnell argued that it was inappropriate for an appointment so important - Supreme Court judges sit for life unless they step down, are impeached or die as Mr Scalia did - should not be made in the last year of an administration.

It was essentially a bet that the Republicans would have a president in the White House a year later.

Mr McConnell drew bitter criticism from many for being obstructionist, but the gamble paid off in Mr Trump, who just days into office nominated the conservative judge Neil Gorsuch to the vacant seat. He was duly confirmed, turning the ideologically evenly split bench five-four towards conservative.

Mr Trump regularly lists the nomination of Mr Gorsuch as one of his top accomplishments, but analysts know that the person to thank for it is actually Mr McConnell.

"Not that he would take credit - but he would get credit," Cornell University professor of American studies Glenn Altschuler told The Straits Times.

"McConnell's move - refusing even to conduct hearings on Merrick Garland, President Obama's nominee, who virtually everyone agreed was well qualified - cleared the way for the nomination of Neil Gorsuch," he said.

"Mitch McConnell is the smartest and most skilled majority leader we've had in the Senate on either side of the aisle since Lyndon Johnson (in the 1960s)," Republican strategist and commentator Evan Siegfried told The Straits Times.

Mr McConnell also has a sense of humour.

Political satirist Jon Stewart made fun of him relentlessly through the early 2000s, repeatedly playing on the "Turtle" nickname, ridiculing his features, his deadpan campaign ads and his slow, deliberate manner in Senate speeches.

But asked in 2015 how he felt about this, Mr McConnell, fresh from a re-election win in 2014, said he was amused.

He had ended up carrying 110 out of 120 counties in the 2014 election, he said.

"I've been elected to the position I hold now by my colleagues unanimously multiple times. It's nice to be approved by the people that count," he said.

The message was unmistakable: The Turtle wins the race.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 03, 2017, with the headline 'Capitol Hill's master tactician'. Print Edition | Subscribe