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Mitch McConnell's Republicans Face Governing Test

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The next Senate majority leader is vowing a far more open chamber next year — one that works longer and doesn't avoid tough votes. But it won't be easy.  

The test for Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will be managing his party's deep splits — it includes both Susan Collins of Maine and Ted Cruz of Texas, after all. He'll have to navigate competing agendas, with Cruz and as many as three other senators expected to launch bids for the White House and likely pulling the party to the right, even as Democrats look to score points on McConnell's sizable crop of vulnerable Republicans up in blue states in 2016.  

But while some Republicans are wary of facing a gauntlet of votes, McConnell is making it known that the Senate won't be the locked-down, do-little chamber it has become. “From an institutional point of view, the Senate needs to be fixed. I made a speech back in January not widely covered, probably shouldn't have been widely covered, but a lot inside of the Senate paid a lot of attention to it. The Senate in the last few years basically doesn’t do anything," McConnell said. “First thing I need to do is get the Senate back to normal, and that means working more. I don't think we've had any votes on Friday in recent memory. 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.”  

However, there will likely be pressure to protect members from some votes, given that nine Republicans will be running for re-election in 2016 in states President Barack Obama won at least once.  

“That has to be the guiding principle,” one GOP senator said on condition of anonymity, while noting that several Republicans will be running for president, competing for funding and likely pulling the caucus to the right.  

But Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, warned his party not to get too cautious and fall into the same trap as Democrats.  

“I think this is something that is really important and one of the factors of this election was the failure of the Senate and it’s current leadership to do anything,” he said late Tuesday night. “I will be encouraging, pushing, insisting, that we as Republicans in a majority work hard to accomplish things for the country, including working with our colleagues who happen to be Democrats. I think it’s important the country. I also think it’s important for the politics in 2016. Republicans need to demonstrate they can govern."  

“We have a lot up people up in ‘16, it’s a challenge,” he said. “I am up in ’16 and I’ve always said that my ability to go into the election of 2016, the chances of my re-election are significantly enhanced if Kansans can see me at work fighting the fight for the things that we believe in and for the last four years it has been hard to find evidence that anybody in the Senate is doing anything useful for the country.”  

Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., speaking at an event at the Bipartisan Policy Center with former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Wednesday, agreed with the sentiment.  

“I think that our 2016-ers need to realize now what happened last night and how that will affect them and they better start thinking about that now,” Lott said.  

“It didn’t work,” Daschle said of Democrats avoiding tough votes. “They were protected, but most of them lost. If that is the strategy going forward, where is the proof?"  

Daschle also said Republicans aggressively criticized the move. “I think it would awfully hard after all the critical speeches made about that process to say, ‘Now we are going to adopt it.'”  

A more immediate issue might be to ensure unity on fiscal issues, with McConnell and other Republicans pushing a revival of the budget process and the consideration of regular appropriations bills. McConnell categorically ruled out shutdowns or defaults on the debt, saying that advancing a House-Senate budget agreement would be a means to the end of pushing spending restraint.  

And among the first questions for McConnell and his expanded Republican Conference will be whether to reverse the change in precedent enacted by Democrats by deploying the “nuclear option” to reduce the vote threshold needed to advance President Barack Obama's nominees.  

“I have said to my members going back to November '13 when the ... trigger was pulled that that’s something that we ought to address if given the majority, and we have been given the majority and we will address it," McConnell said, adding the issue was of tremendous significance despite it being “largely lost on the general public.”  

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been a vocal advocate of reversing the move, which lowered the precedent to a simple majority, from 60 votes, for overcoming cloture on most nominations.  

Lott agrees.  

“I would hope that McConnell would come out of the gate next year, on the first day, wiping out the nuclear option, and going back to the rules as they were,” Lott said. “It does make a huge difference in how things function. I think both parities have overplayed their hand in that area.”  

For the purposes of full disclosure, Lott said he filled the amendment tree to block amendments 11 times, but “two of those were to block John McCain so it was” not strictly partisan.  

Lott, who served as both majority and minority leader, said that being in the majority is considerably more demanding than the minority.  

“Pivoting from being minority leader to being majority leader is not easy,” Lott said. “Majority leader is tough because you’ve really got everything on your back.”  

McConnell said that he hopes that there could be cooperation to clear some of the business that has backed up, such as the appropriations bills.  

“There are a number of things that have sort of stacked up,” McConnell said. “There's a whole lot of unfinished business sitting there. Some of which it might be advantageous to get out of the way. The Democrats may want to do it, and we may want to do it in order to clear off some of the necessary work that's just simply been undone in the dysfunctional Senate."  

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