McConnell promises busy Senate if Republicans retake upper chamber

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday said the Senate will be “much busier” in 2013 should the GOP take control of the upper chamber, criticizing what he said is the Democrats’ penchant for closing up shop at 6 p.m.

In an interview with The Hill, McConnell detailed how he would run the Senate, vowing to pass a budget, repeal “Obama-Care” and reform entitlement programs. 

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He thinks Senate lawmakers need to work harder, which means keeping longer hours and taking politically difficult votes. This might cause grumbling among his rank and file, but McConnell has warned them to buckle down for a heavy lift next year. 

“What has done significant damage to the institution is not doing the things that we’re supposed to do — passing a budget, for example,” he said. 

“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. “Yes, we would be busier.” 

His “No. 1 obligation” is to repeal President Obama’s healthcare law, claiming it could be eradicated with only 51 votes through the budget reconciliation process. 

McConnell also plans to pursue entitlement reform, calling the mounting deficit the biggest threat facing the nation.

Throughout the interview, McConnell expressed his willingness to strike bipartisan agreements. While McConnell is often criticized by Democrats as an obstructionist, his office features portraits of dealmakers: Henry Clay, former President Reagan and former President George H.W. Bush.  

He speaks admirably of the negotiations in the 1980s between then-Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) and Reagan. 

McConnell plays his cards extremely close to the chest, and will use any piece of leverage to secure the best deal possible for his party. He has been known to employ tough rhetoric just hours before ironing out a final deal.

Of course, compromises always attract criticism, and that could spell trouble for senators, including McConnell, who are up for reelection in 2014.

The five-term senator has been spending years readying for that battle, amassing more than $6 million in his campaign war chest.

Striking a “grand bargain” on taxes and spending could trigger a challenge from the right, political analysts say. But McConnell clearly indicated he has no interest in kicking the can down the road again.

“It’s time to do it,” McConnell said, adding that his “conference is full of serious adults who want to get this country straightened out.” 

McConnell is not one to offer bold predictions, saying the odds of the Senate and the White House flipping to the GOP are both about 50-50. He doesn’t, however, shy away from lambasting the president.

Communication this year between Obama and McConnell has been rare. Without changing his level, matter-of-fact tone, the Kentucky legislator says the president’s leadership has been “very poor” and rips him for going “AWOL.”

Yet he is well-aware that he might be dealing with Obama again in the new year. 

“The problem’s not going away no matter who wins the election,” he said. “Clearly, the best way to deal with it would be on a bipartisan basis.”

McConnell has been eyeing a group of Democrats who have been meeting with Republicans as potential partners who could be wooed to support a major deficit-reduction deal if Romney is elected president.

“I do think the Simpson-Bowles exercise and the groups that have been meeting in the Senate that are bipartisan in nature have developed a growing cadre of members who understand that this problem really has to be solved,” McConnell said. “That’s a good thing, and I would hope that those Democrats who are involved in those discussions would understand that the problem has to be solved no matter who wins the election.”

McConnell predicted in 2010 that Obama would become a “born-again moderate,” but now admits he misread the president.

“I thought he would do a Clintonian pivot to the middle in the wake of the November ’10 election. … I was wrong about that.”

McConnell said he was encouraged by Obama’s willingness to extend all of the Bush-era income tax rates in December of 2010, though he now says it “was an aberration.” 

He said he doesn’t speak to the presumptive GOP nominee often, though his staff coordinates with Mitt Romney’s campaign regularly. 

“[Romney] has better things to do than field calls from me,” he said.

Some Republicans have speculated that it would not be possible to repeal all of the healthcare reform law under the current Democrat-appointed parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough. McConnell disagrees.

“I don’t think we need to replace the parliamentarian,” he said. 

McConnell has observed the Senate since 1968, when he was an aide to former Sen. Marlow Cook (R-Ky.), and has become dismayed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) efforts to deny votes on Republican amendments to protect politically vulnerable members.

The White House and Senate Democrats counter that McConnell and his Republican colleagues block almost everything, even non-controversial bills and nominations.

Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said, “This is like the monkey wrench telling the gears how to work more efficiently. The most productive thing Republicans can do is end the record-breaking run of obstruction, delay and gridlock that’s defined Sen. McConnell’s legacy … a Republican majority would mean nothing but more of the same.”

McConnell has repeatedly told Republican colleagues to get ready for changes next year. 

“The Senate would go back to the traditional way of operating, where committees are expected to do their work and members … are expected to be able to cast hard votes,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “One thing that Mitch tells us in our lunch meetings is if you aren’t willing to cast hard votes, don’t come to the Senate.”

The 70-year-old lawmaker attended a Rules Committee dinner hosted by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) earlier this month and indicated that he would like to get more legislation through the chamber. Alexander thought that could mean McConnell wants to get a deal on taxes and spending at the end of the year. 

“We had a very good discussion. He made it clear to that group what he says in our [Republican] meetings. He wants it to work and get a result. The first chance to get a result is the fiscal cliff,” Alexander said in reference to the looming expiration of the Bush tax rates and automatic spending cuts.