It’s practically de rigeur for any journalist who interviews Mitch McConnell these days to ask him about his comment, six years ago, that his primary objective was to make President Obama a one-term president. In an interview that aired Sunday morning on State of the Union, CNN's Dana Bash observed custom and dredged up the old quote.
McConnell, though, days from becoming Senate Majority Leader, seemed ready to set aside any impression that his main goal in office will be the destruction of his primary political opponent.
“I think you can say both of us came up short,” he said. “I had hoped to make him a one-term president, and he had hoped to defeat me last fall. I think what the American people are saying is they want us both to still be here and they want us to look for things to agree on and see if we can make some progress.”
With Congress controlled by the opposing party, the president will be forced to work more closely with Republican leaders if he wants to get things done, McConnell said.
“When the American people elect divided government, they’re not saying they don’t want anything done,” he said. “What they are saying is that they want things done in the political center, things that both sides can agree on. We’ll talk about the things where there may be some agreement.”
At the same time, McConnell conceded there will be pressure to satisfy the GOP’s most conservative members, who see Republican control of both Houses of Congress as a giant opportunity to repudiate the administration’s agenda. In another sign of that divide within the Republican Party, conservative Rep. Louis Gohmert of Texas said Sunday that he’d challenge John Boehner for the post of House Speaker after the new Congress is sworn in. Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida had said Saturday that he would also look to replace Boehner as Speaker.
The clear target for most conservatives is the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature domestic achievement. And though McConnell has more than once said that efforts to repeal or substantially weaken the law are futile while Obama remains in office, he indicted on Sunday that the GOP will try it anyway.
McConnell said the GOP could look to repeal the health care law or strike elements of it, like its tax on medical devices, the mandate requiring individuals to buy insurance or pay a penalty, or the definition of full-time work as 30 hours a week. “We’ll be voting on things I know he’s not going to like,” McConnell said. “And I hope we can put them on his desk.”
However, McConnell was, for the most part, a voice of compromise. In addition to satisfying its most far-right members, he said, the GOP needs to fashion an image of itself as a party able to field a viable presidential candidate in 2016. To do that will require compromise, he said, because Republicans still do not have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
“We need to look for areas where we can make some progress and to do that we’re going to need some Democratic senators, because we have 54 not 60, and we’re going to need a president of the United States... What I hope Senate Republicans will present to the country is a conservative, right-of-center governing majority. Serious people elected in serious times to try to get results."
Other Senate Republicans generally echoed McConnell’s call to focus on governing in the coming Congress. Sen. Roger Wicker, the Mississippian who will chair the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 114th Congress, also stressed the need for Democratic votes to accomplish anything in the Senate, and predicted that voters would see a Senate that is “into accomplishments and governing.”
Appearing on Fox News, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who is expected to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was asked by host Chris Wallace if Republicans will be able to “do business” with Obama on issues such as tax reform and trade agreements, while simultaneously opposing things like the president’s executive actions on immigration.
“Absolutely,” Corker said. “Look, obviously we have not liked the executive actions, especially that were taken after the lame duck, but we understand with humility we’ve got a lot of serious issues that need to be addressed. The bigger issues absolutely require the president to be involved, and I think with anticipation we look forward to that opportunity.”
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, expected to chair the Commerce Committee, was equally optimistic about finding areas of compromise, but he also said that there were clearly areas where the GOP would disagree with Obama. For example, he said one of the first orders of business in the new Congress would be passing a bill that would approve the construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. He also said that the Republicans would “use the power of the purse” to challenge the president’s executive actions on immigration.
That challenge will take place in the debate over funding the Department of Homeland Security, which will run out of money in February due to a temporary spending bill the 113th Congress passed in December.
Thune emphasized, though, that the GOP has an obligation to govern now that it controls both houses of Congress. While protests against the president’s policies have in the past tended toward the dramatic – such as government shutdowns – he said that shutdowns or defunding DHS were not on the table in 2015.
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