McConnell: If we win, we will fix the Senate

Lauren Schneiderman

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday pledged to fix the Senate if Republicans win the majority this fall.

In a major, 40-minute speech that had clear election-year overtones, the Senate Republican leader assailed the Democratic majority, seeking to tie its policies and reign as the crux of Washington’s dysfunction.

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McConnell called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to shift power back to the committees and allow more votes on amendments. He also called for longer work weeks in the nation’s capital.

Reid and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) subsequently headed to the Senate floor to rebut McConnell’s claims.

The Kentucky senator, who is up for reelection in 2014, said his proposed changes would help lift the partisan gridlock that stymied the Senate last year. Democrats, meanwhile, blame the paralysis on Republican filibusters and obstruction.

“My purpose is to suggest that the Senate can be better than it has been, and that it must be if we’re to remain great as a nation,” McConnell said.

The five-term senator sought to flip the Democrats’ 2014 message — which homes in on the need for fairness — on its head.

“If America is to face up to the challenges we face in the decades ahead, she’ll need the Senate the Founders in their wisdom intended, not the hollow shell of the Senate we have today,” he added.  

McConnell asked his GOP colleagues to attend the speech in the Senate chamber, a rare step intended to show solidarity. Thirty-six Republicans did so.

Republicans, who have their best chance of recapturing the Senate in years, are still fuming over Reid’s use of the nuclear option late last year to prevent them from filibustering executive and judicial branch nominees.

“We can be more constructive. We can work through our differences. We can do things that need to be done. But there will have to be major changes if we’re going to get there,” McConnell said, often turning around to face his colleagues sitting behind him to emphasize his points.

McConnell warned that the Senate is in danger of becoming dominated by the majority party after the rules change on nominees that Democrats implemented unilaterally in November. Reid, in a television interview Sunday, suggested he might pursue additional reforms to curb the minority’s power to filibuster.

Reid took to the floor after McConnell spoke to dismiss the minority leader’s claims as a partisan exercise in finger pointing.

“My Republican colleagues are looking for a distraction, a diversion, a phony process meant to steal attention away from their unconscionable stand on the issues that matter most to the middle class,” he said.

Moving legislation through the committees before scheduling floor votes, McConnell argued, would help build bipartisan support. That was the path of the comprehensive immigration reform legislation, one of the biggest Senate accomplishments of 2013, which passed the Judiciary Committee with three Republican votes. McConnell opposed the immigration legislation on the floor.

He acknowledged that allowing more roll calls on amendments would subject vulnerable incumbents to some tough political votes. Yet, McConnell has long said members shouldn’t be afraid to take controversial votes.

“Finally,” McConnell said, “we have to learn how to put in a decent week’s work on the floor again, because another thing we’ve lost around here is an appreciation for the power of the clock to force consensus.”

The GOP leader proposed these same changes when he revealed his vision for how he would run the Senate as majority leader during in an interview with The Hill in 2012.

“You bring up a bill on Monday and say we’re going to finish it this week and mean it. Instead of everybody leaving the office at 6 p.m. and going home, you make the place work,” he said in July of that year. “Yes, we would be busier.” 

He has also pledged to pass a budget through the Senate each year, something Senate Democrats failed to do in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

McConnell and his staff said Wednesday’s speech was intended as a good-faith effort to improve the way the Senate functions, not as a political gambit.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a close ally of McConnell’s, said the surest way to bring about change would be to elect more Republicans to the Senate.

“We know it can happen after November if we have six more Republican senators on this side,” he said.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the Republican whip, said McConnell is “indicating that if the voters entrust Republicans with the majority and he’s the majority leader that he’s going to restore the Senate to its previous reputation as the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

It remains to be seen if the GOP’s strategy of using arcane Senate rule procedure changes as a reason for flipping the majority will work.

Reid’s staff noted that during his tenure as majority leader, 68 percent of the amendments receiving votes have been GOP-sponsored proposals. Under former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), that number was 66 percent and under former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), it was 54 percent.