Sen. Mitch McConnell vows major changes as majority leader

Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellDems leery of Planned Parenthood cuts spark Senate scuffle Overnight Finance: Senate sends Puerto Rico bill to Obama | Treasury, lawmakers to meet on tax rules | Obama hits Trump on NAFTA | Fed approves most banks' capital plans Senate passes Puerto Rico debt relief bill MORE is close to achieving his dream of becoming Senate majority leader and has told colleagues to expect a radically different working environment next year.

Friends and allies of the senior Republican senator from Kentucky say McConnell has yearned for this moment throughout his career in Washington. He wants to etch his name in the history books alongside his idol, Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay, who is known as the Great Compromiser.

ADVERTISEMENT
“It’s his lifetime goal. He is a person of the Senate,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a close friend of McConnell’s who used to sit on his Senate leadership team by special invitation. 

“He’s always wanted to be majority leader and this would be a fulfillment of that,” added Gregg, who is a columnist for The Hill.

McConnell faced a brutal 2014 cycle, having to fend off a primary challenge and Alison Lundergan Grimes, a well-funded Democratic candidate. Recent polls suggest McConnell is pulling away from Grimes and most political handicappers say the GOP is a heavy favorite to claim the Senate.

But McConnell’s dream job would come with its fair share of headaches, as Republicans have competing ideas about what to do with their new power.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who has declined to say whether he would support McConnell serving another stint as Republican leader, wants to boldly confront the president over ObamaCare and his executive action easing deportation.

One tough question is how to use the special budgetary process known as reconciliation, which allows the Senate majority leader to pass reforms with 51 instead of 60 votes.

McConnell may want to make a positive statement of the GOP’s governing vision instead of delivering another denunciation of ObamaCare without offering an alternative. Possibilities include ObamaCare repeal-and-replace legislation or increasing family tax credits, the latter of which President Obama could feel tempted to sign.

If Republicans capture the upper chamber, McConnell will make his first order of business breaking the Senate logjam and showing that Republicans can govern, say Senate GOP insiders.

Gregg said McConnell would “definitely try” to restore the Senate’s reputation as a great deliberative body where legislation moves by compromise and opposition is ground down with late-night sessions.

“I know he doesn’t believe it can be fulfilled unless you have open debate, an open amendment process and a majority willing to take tough votes to get his agenda through,” Gregg said.

In other words, it would be the mirror opposite of the Democratic-controlled Senate under Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who restricted colleagues to voting on a handful of amendments to shield vulnerable Democratic colleagues from taking tough votes. 

Democrats maintain they will hold the majority and note that the Senate map in 2016 is not GOP-friendly. 

Because of that dynamic, it’s now or never for McConnell. 

McConnell laid out his governing vision during a speech to Republican colleagues on the Senate floor in January.

He wants to give more power to committee chairmen to drive the agenda by cranking out legislation and allow robust floor debates, giving senators the chance to offer many amendments and hash out their differences.

That means longer workweeks and later hours.

“The only way 100 senators will truly be able to have their say, the only way we’ll be able to work through our tensions and disputes, is if we’re here more,” the 72-year-old senator said. “Some of us have been around long enough to remember when Thursday night was the main event. We worked late, sometimes well into the morning. And it worked.”

Atop his priority list are a slew of House-passed jobs bills that stalled in the Senate. They include the Preserving Work Requirements for Welfare Programs Act, approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, which helps companies and the government work in tandem to stop hacker attacks. Each received strong Democratic support in the lower chamber.

“He will definitely work with Speaker [John] Boehner [R-Ohio] to show Republicans can govern,” said former Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who served as Senate Republican whip under McConnell. “I think they really have in mind, if you listen to what McConnell has been talking about, finding things the president could sign.”

McConnell would want to move bills that would bolster the economy and have a chance of picking up Democratic votes. A repeal of the medical device tax, which the Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) supports in principle, and trade promotion authority, which Obama endorsed in his State of the Union address, are promising candidates.

Gregg predicts McConnell would move legislation on a two-track approach. On one track would be bills that could pass and wouldn’t be too controversial. On the other, big-ticket items that would require lengthy negotiations with Democrats, such as tax reform.

“Right out of the box, my view is, they should do a few things showing they’re willing to govern,” said Gregg. “And then follow it up in a parallel course by entering into negotiations.

“The big question is whether the president wants to legislate. He hasn’t over the last four years. He has been totally AWOL on the issue of participating in the congressional process,” he added. “But if he wants to get back in the room and have a legacy, I think there are some issues where they can have agreement. Big issues.”

Some conservative Senate aides and activists believe McConnell only wants to play “small ball” instead of pushing bold proposals to repeal ObamaCare or overhaul the tax code.

A Senate Republican aide said this is a misunderstanding.

“It should shock no one that Republicans in the House and the Senate would want to first pass bills that have already passed the Republican-led House initially, but passing those bills early does not mean that leadership is not equally interested in passing legislation that may not have the support of Democrats or the president,” said the staffer who requested anonymity.

“Nor does it mean that Republicans will not continue to press the repeal of ObamaCare through means other than floor votes,” the aide added. “Reconciliation is very much on the table.”

Dirk Van Dongen, the president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors who is close to GOP leaders, said McConnell might clash with some members of his conference but predicted tax and energy reforms would unify Republicans.

Polls show voters care most about jobs and the trajectory of the economy.

“While everybody presumably would have a somewhat different list of what needs to be done, I think there are some items pretty much held in common,” Van Dongen said.

Like Gregg, he questioned whether Obama would engage with Republican leaders in trying to forge compromises. McConnell and other Republican lawmakers believe the only way to find out is to pass legislation from both chambers and put it on his desk.

More in Presidential races

Trump 'surprised' by criticism from GOP leaders

Read more »