For Republicans, now comes the hard part: governing.
Fresh off its historic gains on Election Day, the GOP will soon have control of both the Senate and the House for the first time since 2007. Republicans are promising to fix Congress, knowing that they — for better or worse — will run a historically unpopular institution ahead of the 2016 elections.
In a rare phone call with President Obama Wednesday, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellSanders set for clash with Trump’s budget pick Cabinet picks boost 2018 Dems Overnight Finance: Trump takes US out of Pacific trade deal | WH says Trump has left his businesses | Lobbyists expect boom times MORE (Ky.) identified two major areas of possible compromise: trade agreements and tax reform.
“There are a lot of people who believe that, just because you have divided government, it doesn’t mean you don’t accomplish anything,” McConnell said at a press conference in Louisville, Ky.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said “serious immigration reform” is on the table as well but cautioned it must include strong provisions to secure the border.
Yet the first order of business for McConnell and Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbyists expect boom times under Trump Last Congress far from ‘do-nothing’ Top aide: Obama worried about impeachment for Syria actions MORE (R-Ohio) will be to put the basic work of Congress back on track. That means passing a budget each year and moving the appropriations bills on schedule instead of letting them pile up in annual year-end omnibus packages.
The GOP leaders say they will tackle more than three dozen House-passed jobs bills, such as an authorization of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. That measure has passed the House and has the votes to clear the Senate next year. The Obama administration has repeatedly delayed a final decision on Keystone.
McConnell on Wednesday said the upper chamber under Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidCabinet picks boost 2018 Dems Franken emerges as liberal force in hearings GOP eyes new push to break up California court MORE (D-Nev.) was the primary cause of gridlock.
“The Senate was the problem, not the House,” he said. “The House passed over 300 pieces of legislation, many of them on a bipartisan basis, and nothing was done with them in the Senate.
“The American people have changed the Senate, so I think we have an obligation to change the behavior of the Senate and begin to function again,” he added.
The GOP-led House did give McConnell headaches last year, most notably during the government shutdown. Voters blamed Republicans for that debacle, and McConnell has vowed history will not be repeated.
Some conservatives in Congress want their leaders to enact sweeping reforms to entitlement programs and scoff at “small ball” strategies.
The challenge for both BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbyists expect boom times under Trump Last Congress far from ‘do-nothing’ Top aide: Obama worried about impeachment for Syria actions MORE and McConnell is to unify their troops. Part of their sales pitch will be the 2016 elections, where control of Congress and the White House will be at stake.
McConnell has promised he will give more authority to committee chairmen to move legislation and schedule more votes on the floor, so Senate colleagues from both parties have the opportunity to amend legislation.
He plans to wear down opposition by keeping the Senate in session more days during the week and working longer hours.
“It means occasionally burning the midnight oil in order to reach a conclusion,” he said, pledging to keep the Senate working on Fridays and Saturdays, if necessary.
He believes this is a recipe for putting bipartisan bills on Obama’s desk and getting the machinery of government working again.
“[Former President] Reagan never had the House in eight years. [Former President] Clinton didn’t have the House or the Senate for six of his eight years,” he said.
Despite this dynamic, Reagan and former Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill (Mass.) hashed out a deal to extend the life of Social Security and overhauled the tax code. Clinton and GOP leaders in Congress reformed welfare and balanced the budget.
In 2013, Obama mocked McConnell at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner by suggesting few people, if anyone, would want to have a drink with the stoic legislator.
But on Wednesday, Obama praised the 72-year-old as a straight shooter with whom he could do business.
“I would enjoy having some Kentucky bourbon with Mitch McConnell,” he mused.
“He has always been very straightforward with me. He’s always given me, I think, realistic assessments of what he can get through his caucus and what he can’t. And so, I think we can have a productive relationship.”
They haven’t had such a relationship in Obama’s first six years. While McConnell and Vice President Biden work well together, the president and the Kentucky Republican are polar opposites.
Several years ago, McConnell famously said his No. 1 political goal was to deny Obama a second term. That remark did not sit well with the president. McConnell frequently pointed out that Obama opted not to consult with him on high-profile matters.
Meanwhile, McConnell and Boehner plan to coordinate closely. Over the last four years, they have consulted frequently, often walking over to each other’s offices along a private hallway connecting them in the Capitol.
At the start of next year, Republican leaders plan to move bills popular with the GOP base that are likely to pick up Democratic support, including Keystone, a repeal of the medical device tax and trade promotion authority.
McConnell acknowledged that many liberal Democrats close to labor unions oppose pending trade legislation, but he predicted Obama could prevail over his congressional allies.
“I think he’s interested in moving forward. I said, ‘Send us trade agreements; we’re anxious to take a look at them,’ ” he told reporters, summarizing his conversation with Obama.
Sen. Jerry MoranJerry MoranOvernight Tech: Tech listens for clues at Sessions hearing | EU weighs expanding privacy rule | Senators blast Backpage execs Senate rejects Paul's balanced budget Republicans add three to Banking Committee MORE (Kan.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Republicans must put legislative points on the board if they are to have a chance of keeping their majority beyond 2016.
Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said unified Republican control of Congress would pave the way for tax and entitlement reform, and infrastructure bills.
“Now, we’ll have a partner we can dance with,” he said.
He said special budgetary protection known as reconciliation would allow Congress to address “tax and spending issues.”
“If we get tax reform, and it produces the kinds of jobs we think it will and generates the return of cash from overseas that we think it will, then you can solve another problem in America, and that’s infrastructure,” he said.
Priebus predicted that incoming Senate Budget Committee Chairman Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsDemocrats expected to delay Sessions vote Overnight Regulation: Trump aims to cut regs by 75 percent | Issues federal hiring freeze AT&T beefs up lobbying after merger proposal MORE (R-Ala.) and his House counterpart would be able to reach a joint budget plan.
“One thing people forget is, you don’t need the president’s signature to set budget parameters. We can get [outgoing House Budget Committee Chairman] Paul RyanPaul RyanSanders set for clash with Trump’s budget pick Is healthcare law really going into a ‘death spiral’? Trump hosts Hill leaders for ice breaker MORE [R-Wis.] and the Senate on the same budget, and you can have a budget, and you don’t need the president to do that,” he said.
Ryan is the favorite to become Ways and Means Committee chairman, and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) is expected to receive the Budget Committee gavel.