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Mitch McConnell Promises More Open Process

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has a message for his Conference: Prepare to take tough floor votes beginning next year if Republicans win control of the chamber this November.

In an interview with Roll Call, McConnell declined to predict a GOP takeover and set modest goals for what Republicans can achieve if they’re in charge — promising only that he could set a conservative agenda, not guarantee an outcome. But in a message aimed at making the case for GOP governance to general election voters, McConnell sketched a strategy for running the Senate that he described as markedly different from that of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“There are occasions when filling up the tree is appropriate and majority leaders of both parties have done that from time to time. But usually it’s the exception, not the rule. And, I believe that the downside of being in the majority is that you have to take tough votes to get a measure across the floor,” McConnell said during a 25-minute discussion in his Capitol office.

“If we’re in the majority again,” he continued, “our goal is not to prevent the minority from speaking — from having their opportunity to have amendments — our obligation is to defeat them in a collegial and hopefully decisive way and move legislation that we think is good for the American people.”

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said McConnell could have the open process he craves immediately, if Republicans would stop insisting on politically charged votes on amendments that have nothing to do with the legislation under consideration at any given time. Durbin also pushed back against McConnell’s discussion of a possible Republican majority in 2013, indicating that he fully expects his party to retain control of the Senate.

“I am one who favors debate and votes even when I lose them. I mean, I really believe that we’re brought here to deliberate and to debate and to have our day on the Senate floor,” Durbin said. “Unfortunately, the process has become so distorted that now every time any measure comes up, there’s a litany of Republican amendments — take-it-or-leave-it amendments — most of which have nothing to do with the bill at hand. And that has been frustrating, and I think Sen. McConnell could change that now.”

Control of the Senate requires 51 seats. But with a filibuster-proof 60 votes needed to pass almost any piece of legislation, both Democratic and Republican majorities have been stymied over the past several years in their efforts to push through major legislation. McConnell, an experienced legislative tactician who recognizes the limits of majority control, is attempting not to overpromise what a GOP majority can deliver, while promoting the importance of being able to control the floor.

McConnell emphasized that he does not expect a Republican majority to approach 60 votes, a projection in line with various forecasts of the 2012 Senate elections. That could be why he is vowing to bring up legislation to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law as his first action if he becomes Majority Leader, but he is not making similar promises in regard to its passage.

“My guess is the Senate will be narrowly controlled by one side or the other and the solutions will still have to be largely in the middle,” McConnell said. “I do happen to think that it makes a big difference who sets the agenda. And that is an advantage you get — even though it takes 60 to control the Senate, 51 does give you a better position because you get to kind of decide what the schedule is, decide what your priorities are and I’ve already told you that Obamacare would be my No. 1 priority.”

Many Republicans on Capitol Hill have expressed concern in recent weeks that the protracted and negative GOP presidential primary could hamstring the party’s efforts to hold the House and win the Senate in the fall. The subtle moves toward former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney last week among Members who have been hesitant to back him revealed a desire to unify Republicans and turn the GOP’s focus to ousting Obama.

“I think a lot of Members would like to go on and wrap it up, but it’s not up to us,” McConnell said. “The American people who vote in Republican primaries are going to make this decision.”

But the 70-year-old, five-term Kentuckian contended that his drive to become Majority Leader has not been complicated by the GOP presidential primary nor the actions of House Republicans, who are at times at cross purposes with the Senate GOP. McConnell said he is confident that Senate Republicans’ political prospects haven’t suffered from the recently high volume of intraparty GOP warfare because they have a common foil in Obama.

“What we’re focused on mainly, if you want to just talk the politics of this, is what kind of shape is the president in?” McConnell said. “I think we all agree the president inherited a difficult situation. But he made everything worse. You pick the issue: He made health care worse, made the debt worse, made the deficit worse. It’s hard to pick an area that he didn’t make worse, which is why, if you wanted to sum up what his campaign’s about, [it is]: ‘It’s not my fault.’”

Democrats hold a 51-47 edge in the Senate, leaving Republicans just four seats shy of picking up the majority. Democratic prospects for maintaining control have been boosted in recent weeks with moderate GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe’s decision to retire in Democratic-leaning Maine and former Sen. Bob Kerrey’s (D) move to seek his old seat in Republican-tilting Nebraska.

But the Senate playing field is still loaded with opportunities for Republicans. McConnell, a former two-term National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, cited potential pickups in Montana, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and Virginia, as well as a “potpourri of good shots” in Florida, Hawaii, New Mexico, Ohio and Wisconsin.

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