McConnell seeks fresh start with president

After four years of frosty relations, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is reaching out to President Obama on the eve of his second inauguration to work on entitlement reform.

In an op-ed submitted to The Hill, McConnell has called on Obama to use his inauguration speech to focus on “the massive federal debt that is hanging over the heads of our children and grandchildren.”

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It is an offer McConnell made four years ago but that was soon forgotten amid acrimony over the economic stimulus package and healthcare reform.

The low point of their relationship came in 2010, when McConnell declared, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Now that Obama has been reelected, McConnell’s top priority is reforming Medicare and Medicaid, and he knows he needs the president as a partner, not an enemy.

“Given the serious nature of the challenge, I hope the president uses his inaugural address to acknowledge both the seriousness of the debt crisis and lays out ways, working with both parties in Congress, to get our profligate spending under control,” McConnell wrote.

Sources close to McConnell say he wants Obama and his advisors to meet with Republican and Democratic leaders and negotiate before another fiscal deadline forces a hasty, incomplete compromise. McConnell wants Obama to “turn off the campaign” tactics and stop trying to pummel Republicans into submission from the bully pulpit.

McConnell delivered this blunt message to Obama personally in a brief telephone conversation after the election. He reminded the president of how badly he lost Kentucky to Mitt Romney and said campaign-style rhetoric would not persuade Republicans representing red states.

“The broader conversation was, ‘We want to get something done. If you’re just campaigning in red states, that’s not going to get you anywhere.’ That was his advice to the president,” said a GOP aide familiar with the call.

McConnell has had a better working relationship with Vice President Biden. They negotiated a compromise to extend almost all of the Bush-era tax rates for two years in 2010 and last month hatched a deal to make extend most of those rates indefinitely.

One Democratic source said McConnell is more familiar with Biden because they are both “institutionalists.” Biden served 36 years in the Senate and McConnell feels confident the vice president understands the chamber’s role and culture.

McConnell has drawn the line at passing additional tax increases and says Democrats should focus instead on ways to curb the cost of Medicare and Medicaid.

“With taxes off the table, the only way to achieve a ‘balanced plan’ is to focus on the spending side of the equation, particularly — as the president pointed out — healthcare entitlement programs,” he wrote. “Taxes simply can’t go high enough to keep pace with the amount of money we’re projected to spend on them without crushing our economy.”

Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist and former political aide to McConnell, said, “It’s no secret McConnell would have preferred a different president, but if you want to get something big done in Washington, McConnell is a go-to player.

“Kentucky is not a place where Obama has any infrastructure or support. There would be no political repercussion to oppose Obama at every turn,” he added. “It’s noteworthy and statesmanlike that he has reached out, not once but twice, to the president to do entitlement reform.”

McConnell made a similar offer to work with Obama on entitlement reform four years ago.

“Most people think ideas should be assessed on their merits, not on the senator or the president who proposes it,” he said on Jan. 23, 2009. “As Senate Republican leader, I also pledge to make this a firm principle in my dealings with this administration.”

The relationship failed to take off. McConnell and Obama have met only once one on one in the past four years, an aide said. 

Some Democrats are skeptical that McConnell can succeed where Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) fell short in talks with Obama in 2011 and 2012.

“Sen. McConnell is not a warm and fuzzy person, so I’m not sure how much warmer his relationship with the president will be than the president’s relationship with Speaker Boehner,” Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic strategist, said. “He and his caucus have yet to take any responsibility for the obstruction they’ve caused.

“You can’t have it both ways,” he said.