McConnell’s next job: 2016 traffic cop

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Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellSanders, Merkley back McConnell decision to skip TPP vote John McCain: No longer a profile in courage McConnell: Senate won't take up TPP this year MORE (Ky.) should be prepared to play role of traffic cop ahead of 2016. 

As colleagues with White House hopes jockey for their legislative priorities, it could create tension in the GOP caucus if there’s any whiff of favoritism.

Within McConnell’s conference, Sens. Rand PaulRand PaulTrump, Clinton boost Snapchat spending Clinton enjoying edge over Trump in Silicon Valley Trump gets little backing from Silicon Valley MORE (R-Ky.) and Ted CruzTed CruzThe Trail 2016: On the fringe FULL SPEECH: Hillary Clinton links Trump to 'alt-right' in Reno Presidential hopefuls still bank on retail politics MORE (R-Texas) are weighing presidential runs most aggressively, followed by Sens. Marco RubioMarco RubioLatino Republicans split on Trump's outreach Illegal immigration foe: Trump shift the 'death knell of his candidacy' Analysis: Clinton speaks at higher grade level than Trump MORE (R-Fla.) and Rob PortmanRob PortmanThe Trail 2016: On the fringe McConnell: Senate won't take up TPP this year Senate Dems' campaign arm knocks GOP for Trump support MORE (R-Ohio), who both represent pivotal presidential battleground states.

Sen. Bob CorkerBob CorkerBolton would consider serving as Trump's secretary of State Trump struggles to land punches on Dems over ISIS GOP senator: Trump calling Obama ISIS founder 'went far too far' MORE (R-Tenn.), who’s slated to become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, isn’t ruling out a bid either. Senate Republican Conference Chairman John ThuneJohn ThuneApple, Google enlisted for FCC robocall effort Fidelity denies lobbying for student loan tax break Republicans see fresh chance to overhaul telecom law MORE (S.D.), who has $9.4 million in his campaign account, is another potential White House contender. 

“I think everybody in the Senate believes they should be president and this is certainly not Sen. McConnell’s first time overseeing an ambitious conference,” said John Weaver, a veteran strategist who advised both of Sen. John McCainJohn McCainThe Hill's 12:30 Report State officials under pressure to OK ObamaCare premium hikes McCain's primary opponent takes shot at his age MORE’s (R-Ariz.) presidential runs.

“He’ll have a little bit of a trick because of his already public support of Rand Paul, which he came out pretty early on, and how that might be viewed by Ted Cruz or others,” he added.

Paul helped McConnell with his own tough reelection this year, McConnell told the Lexington Herald Leader earlier this month that “"Whatever [Paul] decides to do...he'll be able to count on me."

The GOP leader has a short window to bask in the spotlight before his colleagues running for president begin to dominate the media’s attention. 

“More or less, McConnell has about six months to be the primary spokesman for Senate Republicans and then he’s going to have substantial competition,” said Steven S. Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis who has studied Senate and the presidential nominating process.

This brief honeymoon period epitomizes the challenges facing McConnell as he tries to balance the responsibilities of governing with the competing agenda of White House hopefuls within his conference. 

“If the Senate Republicans focus too much on who’s going to sit in the Oval Office too early, many of their legislative efforts are going to wind up in the quicksand,” said Ron Bonjean, a former Senate Republican leadership aide. 

“Each one of these senators is going to focus on a variety of issues from immigration to spending and they’re going to stake out there claims,” he said. “It’s going to be very obvious and transparent that they’re running for 2016.”

A Republican senator who spoke on condition of anonymity said McConnell is likely to suffer more headaches dealing with colleagues with 2016 hopes than the new batch of conservative freshmen senators who want to shake up business as usual in Congress.

“More of a problem than them,” the senator said of incoming conservatives, “are the guys looking at running for president. Their decisions are going to be governed by what best sets them up to win the nomination.”

But the senator said Republicans are likely to control 54 seats next year, giving McConnell an ample cushion to suffer GOP defections on some high-profile votes. 

Paul is pressing McConnell to move legislation in January — the prime time for action in the next Congress — allowing companies to repatriate profits held overseas.

“I think we should do something big in January. One big thing we could do is invite all that American profit overseas to come home,” Paul told The Hill in an interview before Election Day.

“I will push hard to get repatriation passed in January,” he said, predicting it would attract Democratic votes. 

He has also called for passing a budget that balances within a few years, an ambitious goal that might give some moderates heartburn. 

“I think the budget should balance within a reasonable amount of time,” he said. “Every Republican voted for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution that requires five years [and then] balance. I think that should be our goal.”

Forty-seven Senate Republicans voted in December of 2011 for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution that would have taken effect five years after ratification. 

McConnell’s biggest worry may be Cruz, a Tea Party favorite who has already challenged his leadership about the wisdom of trying to pass a slew of bills in the lame-duck session.

McConnell wants to start off 2015 with a clean legislative slate but Cruz argues non-emergency bills should wait until the newly elected GOP freshman class gets sworn in and Republicans has more leverage to negotiate.

Cruz is trying to kill the Marketplace Fairness Act, which Democrats want to approve as a condition for extending the moratorium on Internet access taxes, a top Republican priority. This threatens the chances of doing anything quickly in the truncated December session. 

Cruz clashed with GOP leaders last year when he led a conservative revolt against ObamaCare that led to a 16-day government shutdown.

McConnell is sending a stern message that he won’t let that happen again or risk a standoff over raising the debt limit.

“We’ll not be shutting the government down or threatening to default on the national debt,” he told reporters Thursday.

A big question is whether Cruz will try to hold the year-end government funding bill hostage to prevent Obama from using executive power to shield as many as three million illegal immigrants from deportation. In August, he said the White House was the main source fanning fears of another shutdown.

“The real lesson here is jockeying for position in 2016 doesn’t mesh with governing in the here and now, which McConnell is trying to project,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who worked on McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. 

Rubio is another White House hopeful with an ambitious agenda and a media megaphone to drive it.

He is trying to distinguish himself from Cruz by working on a plan to respond to Obama’s impending action on immigration without shuttering the government.

"My sense is that the vast majority of us want to do everything we can to stop it, but also want to avoid outcomes that would prove bad for the country as a whole," he told the Associated Press Thursday. 

He has a multi-pronged plan to spur economic growth. It includes legislation to safeguard the Internet as an even playing field, a bill to increase the wireless access and affordability, and a proposal to encourage government partnerships with the private sector to foster basic research.

More controversially, Rubio has a bill that would prevent the government from bailing out insurance companies that lose money as a result of participating in ObamaCare. This measure doesn’t sit well with some GOP colleagues who count major insurance companies among their constituents.

Of the likely GOP candidates, Portman’s agenda of trade promotion legislation, corporate tax reform and bipartisan regulatory reforms dovetails most snugly with McConnell’s agenda.

One bill the Ohioan co-sponsored with Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillSenate Dem: You can say Trump and his 'friend' Putin founded ISIS Sunday shows preview: Trump's tough week McCaskill blasts Gingrich for comparing Trump to Truman MORE (D-Mo.) would streamline the federal permitting process, while another with Sens. Bill NelsonBill NelsonNew study. Space, security, and Congress Puerto Rico task force asks for help in charting island's economic course Making the switch to a more competitive freight rail industry MORE (D-Fla.) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSenator responds to criticism of daughter's EpiPen company The Hill's 12:30 Report Dem Senate candidate: Toomey 'playing politics' with guns MORE (D-W.Va.) would strengthen cost-benefit analyses at federal agencies of new regulations. These are the types of bills McConnell wants to move to show the GOP can govern.