McConnell Hints at Possible New ‘Grand Bargain’ With Obama
Policy + Politics

McConnell Hints at Possible New ‘Grand Bargain’ With Obama

In his first major speech since becoming the new Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) challenged President Obama to work with him on an ambitious agenda that would go well beyond tax reform, trade and increased infrastructure spending.

In a Wednesday morning floor speech, McConnell outlined a far more ambitious plan that hints at a “Grand Bargain” including Social Security and Medicare reforms as well as steps to achieve a balanced budget.

Related: McConnell Previews GOP Agenda of Compromise, Confrontation

“The truth is we could work for bigger things too,” he said. “We could work together to save and strengthen Medicare, to protect Social Security for future generations, to balance the budget and put our growing national debt on a path to elimination.”

Until now, McConnell and Obama have spoken mainly about fast-track trade legislation, some elements of corporate tax reform and a surge in spending for highways, bridges, and other infrastructure. Yesterday, McConnell appeared much more expansive in what he thought could be accomplished.

He stressed that progress would be contingent on the president’s willingness to expend political capital with his own party. It would also mean an end to blatant partisan gamesmanship, McConnell added, such as when the White House threatened on Tuesday to veto a Republican bill to authorize construction of the Keystone XL pipeline just as the GOP-controlled Congress was being sworn in.

“The president is the only one who can bring his party on board,” McConnell said. “He’s the only one obviously who can sign something the Congress sends him. And I assure you, threatening to veto a jobs and infrastructure bill within minutes of a new Congress taking the oath of office, a bill with strong bipartisan support, is anything but productive.”

Related: 11 Things You Should Know About Mitch McConnell

The notion of forging a “Grand Bargain” of entitlement reform, spending cuts and tax code changes to address the U.S.’s long-term debt has been virtually dormant for the past few years. Lawmakers as well as the White House lost interest in undertaking the politically risky work of altering the status quo in those areas, especially after the budget deficit began to plummet and growth of government health care costs slowed.

The last big effort at a major budget, entitlement and tax reform agreement came during secret talks between House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and President Obama in 2011. But Boehner stepped away from the effort under pressure from his members after Obama tried to extract more in tax increases from Republicans.

Anti-deficit forces including former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) and former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles – who jointly headed a presidential commission – tried to revive interest in their approach in early 2013 with a modified plan to save $2.7 trillion in the long term.

A key component was to adopt a less generous cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security – so-called “chained CPI.” But it ran into strong resistance from senior citizens’ groups and liberal Democrats. Conservative Republicans also objected to any revenue raisers that resembled tax increases.

During a news conference yesterday, Boehner and other House GOP leaders stressed the need for legislation to fuel the growth of better paying jobs, strengthen the middle class and assist veterans. But they said nothing to suggest a more ambitious economic and deficit reduction plan might be in the works.

“Too many Americans are out of work, too many are working harder just to keep pace in the face of rising costs, and frankly, we’ve got an awful lot of work to do,” Boehner said. “Our commitment is to stand up for the American people and their priorities, and it’s a commitment we will not break.” 

Related: Obama Threatens Veto Before Congress Is Sworn In

McConnell’s first speech as majority leader referred to a bygone golden era of the Senate, when bipartisanship and “regular order” were watchwords. He also described the Republicans’ near-landslide victory in the November midterms as strong voter repudiation of Obama and Democratic policies.

“We’re at a moment of great anxiety as a nation,” he said. “The people we represent have lost faith in their government. They no longer trust Washington to do the right thing.”

McConnell acknowledged the economy is humming along – with the unemployment rate down to 5.8 percent and the GDP on a 5 percent growth spurt in the third quarter of 2014. But he said those improvements may have more to do with soaring expectations about the impact of the Republican takeover of Congress than anything the Obama administration has done.

“The uptick appears to coincide with the biggest political change of the Obama administration’s long tenure in Washington: the expectation of a new Republican Congress,” McConnell said. “This is precisely the time to advance a positive pro-growth agenda. Some of the measures may seem significant, others modest. That’s okay. As we’ve seen in recent years, a bigger bill doesn’t always mean a better bill.”

Related: U.S. Economy Posts Best Growth in a Decade. Now Will It Last?

Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to the president, offered a much different take on where credit is due for the economic resurgence.

“We’ve created nearly 11 million jobs over the past 57 months — the longest streak of private-sector job growth on record,” Pfeiffer said yesterday. “2014 was our strongest year of job growth since the ‘90s. In the last year alone, about 10 million Americans have gained health insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act. And drivers are saving more than a dollar a gallon at the pump relative to this time last year.”   

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