Looking every inch the man who had just realized a long-held dream, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, as of last night the prospective Senate Majority Leader for the 114th Congress, held an upbeat press conference in Louisville on Wednesday and promised major changes, both in the relationship between Republicans and Democrats in the chamber, and between the Senate and the president.
The GOP leader unequivocally said that government shutdowns and threats to default on the federal debt that have plagued Washington in recent years are now off the table. He insisted that with a Republican Congress that will be able to pass a budget, the GOP has different forms of leverage now.
Calling the budget process “our best tool,” he promised that “we will use the power of the purse to push back against” what he termed an “overactive bureaucracy.”
Addressing the Republican Party’s success in the Tuesday night elections, he said, “I think what the voters were saying yesterday was a couple of things. Number one, they are obviously not satisfied with the direction of the administration but at the same time I heard a lot of discussion about dysfunction in Washington.”
He laid the blame for the second problem on the institution in which he has served since 1985.
“The Senate was the problem, not the House,” he said. “The House passed over 300 pieces of legislation … and nothing was done with them in the Senate. The American people have changed the Senate, and I think we have an obligation to change the behavior of the Senate and to begin to function again.”
Repeating a point he’s often made, McConnell, 72, said that divided government, in which different parties control the White House and the elements of the legislative branch, is the normal state of American politics, and that voters expect the government to function regardless of the partisan balance in D.C.
To that point, he said, “The Senate needs to be fixed. The Senate in the last few years basically doesn’t do anything. We don’t even vote.”
“The first thing I need to do is get the Senate back to normal,” he said. “That means working more… It means opening the Senate up so that amendments are permitted on both sides, and it means occasionally burning the midnight oil in order to reach a conclusion.”
It was hard to see McConnell’s comments about the functioning of the Senate as anything other than a dig at current Senate majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), with whom McConnell has fought in acrimonious floor debates over arcane procedure. Reid has spent much of the last few years preventing Republicans from adding amendments to bills; Reid also took the highly controversial step of amending the Senate’s rules on a party line vote in order to stop Republicans from filibustering President Obama’s executive branch nominees.
To be clear, Harry Reid did not wake up one morning and decide, apropos of nothing, to prevent Republicans from amending bills and to create massive ill-will by invoking the so-called “nuclear option” on executive branch nominees. Reid’s moves were in large part a reaction to highly obstructive tactics on the part of the party the other side of the aisle.
That party was led, then as now, by the Kentucky senator who yesterday called for a more functional Senate. In the early years of President Obama’s term, Republican amendments to legislation increasingly resembled poison pills meant to make bills unpalatable to Democrats or transparently political proposals meant to do little more than force embarrassing votes. And the McConnell-led Senate used the filibuster to an unprecedented degree, leaving large numbers of executive branch positions unfilled.
Recent history aside, McConnell several times stressed his desire to see the Senate work as it did in the past, with a bit more civility and cooperation.
He said that he is anxious to make the Senate’s committee system relevant again, adding that bills that pass out of committee with a bipartisan majority ought to be a signal that there are lawmakers on both sides of the aisle interested in getting things done.
He said he has already been contacted by “three prominent Democrats” who, he said, are “anxious to be relevant again, anxious for committee work to be respected.”
But lest Senate Democrats get too excited about an era of cooperation and comity, he added, “There’s only one Democrat who counts: The president.”
McConnell spent a significant amount of time addressing his relationship with President Obama, saying that despite press coverage suggesting the contrary, that their relationship has always been “cordial.”
Asked whether he would be able to find common ground with Obama, he said, “The president and I were just talking about that before I came over here,” adding that they agreed that both are interested in working together on foreign trade agreements and tax reform.
With regard to the latter, he said, “We all know having the highest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world is a job exporter…He is interested in that issue and we are, too.”
McConnell painted a picture of a Republican Congress that passes a lot of legislation and will battle it out directly with the president, as constitutional equals. “I’m not sure he’s going to sign everything but we’re going to function,” he said. “We are.”
Several times McConnell pointed out that the president’s veto authority is a major weapon that can force compromise in a Congress that is determined to pass laws. “The veto pen is a pretty big thing,” he said. “He’s a player. That’s the way our system works.”
One area in which he appeared to promise some conflict is the issue of the Affordable Care Act.
“Every one of my members thinks Obamacare was a huge legislative mistake. If I had the ability… I’d get rid of it,” he said. Noting that the president could veto any effort to undo the bill, he added, “Obviously, he’s still there.”
He indicated, however, that “pieces of it are deeply unpopular with the American people,” such as the medical device tax, the individual mandate, and rules about what constitute full-time employment might be targeted individually.
Questioners noted that when the new Congress is convened, the Senate Republican caucus will have a number of high profile members, including McConnell’s fellow Kentuckian Ran Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, both of whom may run for president. Asked if their efforts to stand out from the legislative crowd would give him problems managing his party, McConnell merely smiled.
Of his colleagues, he said, “They’re all ambitious or they wouldn’t be where they are. I am not troubled by ambition and I think we can accommodate that and still make progress for the country.”
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