Let's Make a Deal

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Photograph by Ethan Hill for TIME

For the first two years of Barack Obama's presidency, Mitch McConnell never got a phone call from the White House. Instead, he sat in his office on the second floor of the Capitol and plotted Obama's political demise. Now, ask the Senate Republican leader when he last spoke to Vice President Joe Biden, and he lets out a laugh, his golden presidential-seal cuff links — a gift from George W. Bush — flashing as his hands go to his face. "Today," he says.

After a few months on the sidelines of the endless budget battles, McConnell is back at the table. A White House that has long ignored him knows that any grand bargain on the budget and the debt limit won't pass without his O.K. McConnell knows that too, and he has stepped out in recent weeks to argue that his renewed support in the Biden-run debt talks makes all things possible. "Divided government is the only government that can do transformational, difficult things," he says in an interview. And what about the defeat of Obama, something he named as his top priority earlier this year? "That's next year," he says. "The question this year is, What are we going to do for the country?"

Since Obama's election, McConnell has mostly treated compromise like a dirty word, derailing his GOP colleagues when they tried to bargain with Democrats. During the 2009 health care debate, he reportedly threatened to boot Iowa's Chuck Grassley from his Judiciary Committee slot if Grassley endorsed the Obama-backed reform bill. (Neither Senator will confirm or deny this.) Last year, McConnell pressured South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham to abandon bipartisan collaboration on climate change and immigration. And McConnell undid months of work by top Senate appropriators on the 2011 budget and imposed a three-month freeze on the White House instead. "He doesn't twist arms so much as he reminds you how unhappy others will be if you go down this path — how hard it'll be — and the importance of sticking together," says Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican.

It was the same story this spring, when it became obvious that McConnell wasn't enthusiastic about deficit-reduction talks by a bipartisan Gang of Six Senators — three from each party — who'd been working for months on a grand fiscal bargain. On May 10, McConnell made it clear that the only talks that counted were the ones that involved Biden, and through Biden, McConnell. A week later, the Gang of Six fell apart.

When McConnell wants to deal, the Senate is miraculously transformed from a parking lot to a drag strip. In December, McConnell and Biden struck a surprise bargain that extended Bush's tax cuts, repealed "Don't ask, don't tell" and led to the ratification of a nuclear arms treaty with Russia. "The Vice President," says Biden's chief of staff Bruce Reed, "admires Mitch McConnell as the best vote counter he has ever known."

McConnell, 69, began his political career as an intern for Senator John Sherman Cooper, a moderate Kentucky Republican who collaborated with President John F. Kennedy, and he later worked in the Ford Administration. But since arriving in the Senate in 1984, McConnell has toed a staunchly conservative line. "He was a very moderate Republican, and I was a great admirer of his," McConnell says, pointing to a portrait of Cooper hanging in his office. "But I think we all change over the years, and I am clearly more conservative than my earlier role model."

As bipartisan budget and debt-ceiling talks at Blair House intensify, the question is, What will McConnell want in exchange for a hike in the debt ceiling? Deeper cuts in federal spending look certain, perhaps $6 trillion worth. McConnell says he is opposed to new taxes but is open to a short-term debt-limit extension — one that would require another debt-limit vote next year and the additional cuts that come with it. McConnell prefers that any deal include changes to Medicare, though that looks less likely now that the GOP is wondering if Paul Ryan's Medicare plan is a recipe for electoral suicide. On that point, McConnell tries to sound sanguine. "I think we will have done something significant to alter the trajectory long term on Medicare well before the election," he says.

Both sides are settling in for an extended siege. The White House says both taxes and spending must be part of any final deal to raise the debt ceiling but doesn't have a lot of leverage to make that happen. McConnell doesn't expect an agreement until early August, just before the Treasury Department runs out of accounting tricks to keep the government operating.

In any case, McConnell is in no hurry to concede first. He waited a long time for the White House to pick up the telephone. He can wait a while longer.