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Mitch McConnell Interview Transcript

McConnell talked with CQ Roll Call on Dec. 5. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

CQ Roll Call's Niels Lesniewski interviewed incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Dec. 5. A lightly edited transcript follows.

Q: I’m pleased to have the chance to talk to you a little bit about the way forward for next year and, and what’s going to change around these parts when you switch titles, although not offices. Literally. And I think I first wanted to just start with: you’ve talked a lot about how to get the Senate functioning again. And I saw the interview that you did yesterday with Greta. And I’m just curious how much you think that that’s actually realistic? That, that, that you’re not going to run into a scenario where, a couple of months down the road, you’re facing a predicament of trying, of having to fill the tree because things get unruly or something like that?

McConnell: Well I think it is achievable. A reasonable percentage of the calls — up to half the calls I got after the election were from Democratic senators. I’m not implying that they were happy I won, but they were awfully curious as to whether I really meant it early last year when I pointed out that we needed to run the Senate in a very different way. So I think it’s not just Republicans who would like to see the Senate run differently. I think there are a reasonable number of Democrats as well. And I think you know what that means. You call up a bill, it’s open for amendment, always a bit chaotic.  

But you process a number of amendments, particularly the ones that are the most significant to both sides, and you move to a completion of the bill. I’ve never said I would never fill up the tree but I think it ought to be an exception rather than the rule, and that we ought to give members an opportunity to participate. And we intend to do that and I think there’s going to be bipartisan gratitude — for having a chance to be relevant, to not be marginalized. And the classic example I’ve used — I’m sure you've heard me say it before — was Mark Begich in Alaska who was here for a full six years and never had a roll call vote on an amendment on the floor of the Senate, which Dan Sullivan tells me he used on virtually a daily basis. So the notion that protecting all of your members from votes is a good idea politically, I think, has been pretty much disproved by the recent election. So I do think that can be accomplished. I think there are — if you look at the Keystone vote I think that the pool of folks who were anxious to actually make legislation ... rather than just scoring points every week, actually try to get outcomes.

Q: If you look at your agenda — I was looking at the calendar. With the Senate convening on January the 6th and, and running pretty much through President’s Day weekend nonstop, what is your plan for an agenda for that first sort of work period?

McConnell: Well let me say, we, we've been planning this going back to the Spring of 2014. I’ve had multiple meetings with then-ranking members, telling them what I will now tell you. The worst experience any majority can have is that you convene and you look around and nothing’s ready to go. So what I said to the members who hoped they would be chairmen: let’s don’t have that problem. Be thinking now about legislation that you have, preferably that enjoys some Democratic support because we certainly didn't think we were going to have 60 and we don’t.

Q: Right.

McConnell: You know there are not many things, other than the budget, that we’re going to be able to do with 54 votes. So clearly we’re looking for things that we think would make a difference, improve the country, and enjoy some bipartisan support. And, by the way, we intend for you to bring it out of committee. Amazingly enough, I’m not — there may be occasions where I feel like I have to Rule 14 something that I've crafted here, but I want that to be an exception too. We want committees to actually function.

Q: Are there things that don’t necessarily need to go through committee because everyone knows what they are —

McConnell: Well there may be —

Q:  — like medical device or Keystone or something?

McConnell: There, there may be occasions, but, but, but we want to -- look, what happens in committee if the committee functions, more often than not, not every time but more often than not, a bill comes out with bipartisan support. If that happens, then there’s an interest out here on the floor in actually passing it. (Chuckle) And so I think there were two messages in last year’s election. One is pretty obvious. People were mad as hell at the president — and wanted to send a message. We all got that. Our new members were also hearing, and I was hearing as well, that people didn’t like the fact that the Congress was dysfunctional. Now they may have been confused about where the dysfunctionality was cause the president kept pointing to the House. Factually, that’s not accurate. The dysfunction was in the Senate. And so we didn’t make much progress on the country’s agenda. And in my view it’s because the Senate basically hadn’t done much of anything, with a couple of exceptions, for the last four years. And that’s going to change.

Q: One of the things you mentioned, the budget resolution is one area where you don’t need Democratic votes. How aggressive are you going to be or would you like to be in terms of rolling back Obamacare as part of the reconciliation process?

McConnell: Well I would say two things. Number one: we certainly will have a vote on proceeding to a bill to repeal Obamacare… it was a very large issue in the campaign. And, the reconciliation process does present an opportunity and we’re reviewing that to see what’s possible through reconciliation.

So, we’re certainly gonna keep our commitment to the American people to make every effort we can to repeal it.

It is a statement to the obvious, however, that Obama — of Obamacare — is the President of the United States, so I don’t want people to have [unrealistic] expectations about what may actually become law with Obama — of Obamacare — in the White House. But we intend to keep our commitment to the American people.

Now, that doesn’t mean we might not also want to target parts of the law that we know enjoy bipartisan opposition. It is a lot of concern about the 40-hour workweek, a lot of concern about the individual mandate. We actually have a show vote on the medical device tax as you know.

Q: Yes

McConnell: And 79 senators, including that great conservative Elizabeth Warren, said they didn’t like the medical device tax, so we will go at that law—which in my view is the single worst piece of legislation passed in the last half century — in every way that we can.

Gruber has made clear that it required all kinds of deception in order to get it passed. We were saying that at the time, but everybody just assumed we were just hard nosed partisans … but, virtually everything Gruber has said confirms what we were saying during that debate in 2009. But, yeah, to sum it up: we have a strong obligation to the American people to do everything within our power to get rid of it.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your, and I, again, I’m going to go back to the transcript of the conversation you had yesterday on Fox, but the, you want to bring all of the appropriations bills through regular order through the committee and to the floor, and I have two sort of questions about that.

The first is: have you thought about whether or not you’re going to keep your own seat on the appropriations committee?

McConnell: Yeah, I probably will, but I have not been active in committee work since I became leader. But, I think it is to the advantage of my state to have the opportunity to come to meetings occasionally and to vote in person, rather than just by proxy. So, yeah, I do intend to do that because occasionally it’s helpful to be there in person and to directly participate. Obviously, I’m not going to be a very active member of the committees that I serve on.

Q: On the appropriations: If bringing all twelve to the floor, that’s if you say a week for each bill, that’s going to consume most of the May, June, July work period…

McConnell:  Right.

Q: Is that something that both your members and the democrats should be prepared for that to be the focus?

McConnell: Well, if you believe one of the biggest problems confronting the country is overregulation by this administration, the single most effective way to begin to rein in the aggressive regulators, who in my view have done great damage to this economy, is in the bills that fund the regulators.

So, we intend to give a very high priority — passing a budget is essential and will happen. Step two; pass the individual bills that fund the government and those bills will reflect widespread concern about the way the government has been run.

In other words, what have these people employed in these departments been doing to our economy?

EPA is a perfect example of great importance in my state. Not only from a mining point of view, but from an agriculture point of view. You’ve got the crusade on CO2 emissions, you’ve got now the Ozone regulation, you’ve got the waters of the US, which, would put them in charge of virtually every puddle on every farm in America.

In my view the single biggest reason this has been such a tepid recovery after the recession of 08 is the government itself.

So, you betcha, passing individual appropriations bills is going to be a high priority. I know it will be time consuming, but I think it’s an important way for us to spend our time.

Q: Okay, I wanted to ask, I was in, as you probably well know, I was in Kentucky around the election and the Sunday before when I was at the parade at Madisonville,  with the whole line of Corvettes uh and I know that the Vice President is a fan of the Corvettes, as I’m sure you did as well.

McConnell: I actually didn’t know that.

Q: My lead question on this is if you would be interested in inviting the VP for a Corvette summit since everyone is talking about a bourbon summit.

McConnell: Yeah, look, I have a good relationship with the Vice President. But the Vice President is not a free agent. He is a part of the administration and he will you know, do what the President asks him to do. And the President and I did have a chance to talk this week and hopefully that will not be as unusual as all of you thought it was. And the reason you thought it was, is, it was unusual. Hopefully we will have a greater opportunity to talk about the way forward more frequently and obviously how much I deal with the Vice President will be determined by the President.  

Q: Fair enough. I wanted to ask on a couple of other items. Senator Lott , one of your predecessors here of course, just yesterday was encouraging you to deal, I think his term was “sternly”  with possible renegade conservatives within your conference as well as, I think the term he used was “co-opt” newcomers, your newly elected flock. How do you plan on dealing with issues of party discipline and people who either on the conservative side or the more moderate wing may want to go their own ways or cause trouble or something of that sort?  

McConnell: Well, this is not directed at you, but it strikes me as kind of an under-reported story that the real party um, infighting going on right now is not among the Republicans, it is among the Democrats. We’ve had these series of votes on confirmations here in the Senate the last few days, so we are on the floor a lot. Most of my conversations have been with Democrats. If their insistence. Um, not that I’m not talking to the Republicans, but they are the ones in disarray. They are the ones criticising Obamacare publicly as a mistake, a political mistake. They are the ones who are suffering the embarrassment of having the President veto a bill that has just been negotiated between the Democratic majority in the Senate and the Republican majority in the House.  

McConnell: Um I think that’s what you ought to keep your eye on because that’s what makes possible on a bipartisan basis getting to 60 votes. Which we will need to do on virtually everything except the budget. On our side if you look at the new class I think you can safely say that um every single one of them -- I always think there is sort of two kinds of people in politics: those that want to make a point and those that want to make a difference. And I think we’ve just added 12 new members to the make a difference caucus. And I think we, you know, have some occasional differences over tactics, but I think we are gonna have a broad support within our conference for right of center progress. I mean, what we want to be is a responsible right of center governing majority.  

McConnell: We don’t intend to engage in rhetoric nor actions that rattle the public, that rattle the market. We want to be, as I just said, a responsible right of center governing majority and see what kind of progress we make for the country. Now what we can’t control is what the President does with legislation we put on his desk. I guess we will just have to wait and see. But um I think that we are going to be able to make significant progress here in the Senate.

Q: I few quick other items if I may. One of which is a sort of substantive policy questions. Do you think that there is any way to move forward with immigration  as sort of a big picture legislative item as long as the executive actions are in effect?

McConnell: Well I can tell you for sure that what the president did after the election makes it unlikely that it is an early item for this Conference. But no one believes the current immigration system is not broken. And um at some point I believe it would be appropriate to do something to secure the border and maybe to address other parts of the legal  immigration system as well. The President has taken it upon himself to deal with the question of the just about 11, so called 11 million. That’s the most challenging part of this issue. So I think the takeaway for your purposes today is it’s in my view not an early item for consideration in the Republican Senate. But that’s not an endorsement of the status quo either. Because, I think, you know, that  there is much wrong with the way things are going now on this issue and need to be corrected.  

Q: The other policy area I wanted to touch on was one that you’ve been involved with for a very long time, which is campaign finance. And there were some reports this week that you were interested in attaching something to the omnibus related to the way parties are allowed to coordinate. I was curious if you could talk about that as well as what your sort of agenda is for campaign finance issues in the next couple of years.

McConnell: Well we — that’s not on the agenda. But the issue you mentioned is an absurdity in the current law. Which if fixed would have no adverse implications either way. Under current law, a national party committee has a statutory limit on how much it may spend on it’s own candidates by state. But then if it wants to do more that, independent expenditures, it has to engage in the follow absurdity:

Some outside group is set up, you hope their friends and allies do the right thing and you make a sort of blind transfer into this outside group. But 100% of that money is what we call “hard money,” it’s limited and disclosed.  This is not Citizens United kind of thing, this is party committees and you hope for the best. And everybody who has chaired a senatorial committee of either party says it’s absolutely absurd. So what I have suggested is that we fix that by discontinuing the practice of the congress dictating to national party committees how they spend their money. If a particular party committee, we’re talking about basically six committees, the RNC and the DNC, the republican and democratic committees in the house and senate, six national party committees. Rather than Congress trying to micro manage how they spend their funds which are given by people in limited and disclosed amounts. Let them spend it how they choose to. This is not [INAUDIBLE] money. This is not — this is unrelated to all these groups that are sprung up on the outside. And as I said, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a single chairman of any of these committees in the past that doesn’t think this is absurd. So I have suggested and I think it’s being discussed on a bi-partisan basis whether or not this would be an improvement over the current system. Let me just sum it up: It would strengthen the parties, who have frankly have not as much clout anymore, much of the firepower, it is now outside the parties. I don’t think there is anything good about weakening the parties.

And as the plaintiff in the McCain-Feingold case, this is exactly what I predicted. Which was when you took, which was called “solve funding non-federal money (inaudible)” away from the state parties it would be spent on the outside.

And while I’m not opposed to all of that, I think everyone ought to be able to have their fair say. I do think weakening the parties is not good policy.

So, sorry for the lengthy answer, but that’s the discussion we’ve had on a bi-partisan basis here at the end of the year and we’ll see what happens.

Q: Okay, I’m sort of stepping back from the, I know it’s not entirely minutia, but stepping back from that minutia to the broader question of operating the Senate. Do you have a particular, I think I have some idea what your answer might be, but do you have a particular predecessor in the role of Majority Leader who you sort of have particular historical interest in, who you might either try to fashion yourself after or anything of that sort?

McConnell: Well you’ve read what I’ve said about this in the past, I think. I’m a big fan of Mike Mansfield, who ran the Senate totally different from Lyndon Johnson. In more recent times I’ve thought George Mitchell — I’m picking Democrats here because I don’t want to pick amongst Republicans. I’ve served with many of them and I thought that they were outstanding.

So the fact that I’m citing a couple of Democrats should not be interpreted as meaning that I was not a fan of Republicans.

But, you know, with all due respect to my current counterpart. I do not approve with the way the Senate was run. I don’t think it was good for the institution and ultimately I don’t think it was good for his own party. So you can anticipate a different approach.

Q: This situation with Senator Paul in his re-election and potentially also running for President if he chooses to do so. You’ve already said you’re behind him in that effort. Is there anything you’re working in terms of, or what help are you willing to provide in terms of dealing with this question of the two lines that appears on the ballot issue that appears in Kentucky law?

McConnell: Well let me just say, I’m a friend and enthusiastic supporter of Senator Paul’s efforts.

Related:

McConnell Plots a Functional, Bipartisan Senate

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