McConnell Plots a Functional, Bipartisan Senate

McConnell said divisions among Senate Democrats in the next Congress will trump any discipline problems within his Republican majority.(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Mitch McConnell wants to hit the ground running in January — and he thinks Democrats are ready to join him in crafting a more open, functional Senate.  

In an exclusive interview in his Capitol office suite, the incoming majority leader told CQ Roll Call he's been preparing his would-be chairmen to move quickly since spring.  

"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 [was], '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,'" the Kentucky Republican said.  

McConnell pointed to conversations he's had with Democrats, whose cooperation will be required to get the Senate functioning as he would like.  

"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," he said. "I think there's going to be bipartisan gratitude for having a chance to be relevant, to not be marginalized."  

Asked about how he planned to address party discipline and splits in his majority, McConnell emphasized divides among Democrats.  

"They are the ones in disarray. They are the ones criticizing 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," he said, a reference to President Barack Obama's threat to veto a tax extenders package.  

"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," he said.  

He had high praise for the incoming class of majority-makers.  

"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," McConnell said. "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."  

McConnell wasn't saying he would never use procedural tools, such as the Rule 14 process, to bypass committees or filling the "amendment tree" to block amendments, but he certainly wants those tools to be far more rarely used than in recent years under Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.  

For starters, he doesn't think it's smart politics.  

"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," he said.  

McConnell, 72, said many senators want to get outcomes, not just score points every week.  

That's not to say there won't be partisan votes that won't get a lot of Democrats on board.  

"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," McConnell said, reaffirming a commitment to see what can be done against it, also discussing plans to roll back parts of the health care law that have proved to be particularly unpopular.  

"We actually had a show vote on the medical device tax ... 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."  

McConnell said Republicans are reviewing how to go at the law through the budget reconciliation process — which would allow for passage of legislation through the House and Senate without needing Democratic votes — but said he wants fellow opponents of the law to be realistic.  

"It is a statement to the obvious, however, that Obama — of Obamacare — is the president of the United States," he said of the job with the veto power.  

McConnell wants to set up the real standoff with the White House on the regular funding of the government, restoring the old practice of getting 12 spending bills to the president's desk well ahead of Sept. 30.  

"If you believe one of the biggest problems confronting the country is over-regulation 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," McConnell said, citing the EPA as a top target. "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."  

But McConnell also wants to show his party can govern.  

"What we want to be is a responsible, right-of-center governing majority," McConnell said. "We don't intend to engage in rhetoric nor actions that rattle the public, that rattle the markets.  

"What we can't control is what the president does with legislation we put on his desk," he added.  

But even there, McConnell sounded hopeful that his relationship with Obama will improve.  

"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," he said. "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."  

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