Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is looking at his best chance… (Alex Wong, Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell operates with a steely resolve, a political discipline that leaves nothing to chance.
A childhood bout with polio instilled in him an enormous capacity for patience. And for 25 years in Congress, the Kentucky Republican has waited for the moment now before him: the chance to become Senate majority leader.
With four seats needed to flip the chamber, or three if a Republican is elected president (because the vice president could break a tie), the GOP has its best opportunity in years to gain full control of Congress.
But McConnell and his party must first overcome the unfinished business weighing them down — an extension of a payroll tax break that is the White House's top legislative priority.
Republican leaders are eager to turn the page on the issue after being badly bruised in the debate that closed 2011. A swift compromise to extend the legislation for the rest of this year would enable Republicans to go on offense as they seek to retain majority control of the House and win the Senate.
"They want to get the Senate back, and they need to get this behind them," said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and former leadership aide in the House and Senate. "The more it's out there, the more hurtful it is to everyone running."
A key problem McConnell faces is that his Senate candidates see the issue very differently from some of their fellow Republicans on House SpeakerJohn A. Boehner's side of the Capitol. Senate candidates, who must appeal to a broad electorate as they run statewide, do not want to be perceived as blocking a popular tax cut for working Americans.
Some House Republicans from conservative districts, however, believe they scored political points among their supporters by opposing President Obama in December and taking a hard line against the tax break. They argue the cut would do little to help the economy.
Democrats see little reason to give ground in a fight they believe they are winning. The reduction in Social Security taxes puts about $20 a week in the pockets of most American workers. A two-month extension approved by Congress over the holidays expires at the end of February. Without action, taxes would rise March 1.
Although delaying a resolution may not be ideal in an uncertain economy, it could allow Democrats to continue to portray the GOP as blocking a working-class benefit, a populist weapon heading into campaign season. Obama has started his reelection bid against a "do-nothing" Congress.
"It's starting to get a little like 'Groundhog Day' — here we go again," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst who monitors the Senate at the bipartisan Cook Political Report. Both parties risk blame if they are seen as toying with the tax cut, she said. "Voters are sick of not getting anything done."
McConnell is a master at building such legislative traps and at figuring out ways to escape from them. He is a political chess master who has perfected the do-nothing nature of this Congress. But he also has been a key figure in breaking legislative stalemates, whether it was the fight over the debt ceiling last summer or the payroll tax standoff last month.
To avoid another trap, he will have to deal with Democrats while still keeping his alliance with Boehner, with whom he meets weekly, and the restive House conservatives.
Some House Republicans suggested last week that McConnell ought to pay them a visit to offer an explanation of his strategies. McConnell, who plays his hand so close to the vest that fellow senators often don't know his next move, may drop by, an aide said.
The Kentuckian understands the political perils of this election season. When he ran the Senate's campaign arm a decade ago, McConnell could correctly predict every single race the night before the election, those familiar with his thinking recalled.
He is actively engaged in this year's quest for the Senate majority, which Republicans lost in the 2006 election. His former campaign director now heads American Crossroads, the influential Karl Rove-backed group that is expected to pour millions into winning the Senate. And he knows the edge Senate Republicans hold in this election cycle.
With Congress' approval ratings at record lows and nearly two dozen Democratic Senate seats to be contested, it is not difficult to find four or more vulnerable seats — in Nebraska, North Dakota, Montana, Missouri and Virginia, for example.
By contrast, only two Republican seats — those held by Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Dean Heller in Nevada — are considered in play, though Democrats are making a run for Republican-held seats in Indiana and Arizona.
The price Republicans intend to extract for giving Obama another payroll tax victory is more open to negotiation than it was last month, when the House GOP's proposed cuts to domestic programs to pay for a full-year extension received a cool reception from Democrats. Republicans may try to resurrect pressure on the White House to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, which the administration has rejected, at least for now.
A committee of Republicans and Democrats is officially responsible for constructing a compromise. But no deal is expected without a sign-off by congressional leaders, and McConnell is likely to be a key architect in crafting a way out for Republicans.