McConnell grabs the wheel in the Senate

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSocial media never intended to be in the news business — but just wait till AI takes over Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity Two-thirds of Americans support assault weapons ban: Fox News poll MORE (R-Ky.) is giving GOP lawmakers more authority right out of the gate, underlining his message that he won’t run the Senate the way Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason Reid2020 Democrats fight to claim Obama's mantle on health care Reid says he wishes Franken would run for Senate again Panel: How Biden's gaffes could cost him against Trump MORE did. 

McConnell is letting the new chairman of the Senate Rules Committee take the lead on whether to undo the “nuclear option” invoked by Democrats and Reid (D-Nev.) that limited the minority’s right to filibuster.

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McConnell is also allowing an open debate process on legislation to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline, the first issue the new Senate will take up. 

And he’s deferring to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee, on the timing of a floor debate on Ashton Carter, President Obama’s choice to serve as secretary of Defense.

McConnell promised last year that he would give his committee chairmen more authority compared to Reid, who irked members of both parties with the way he ran the Senate.

As he prepares to take his dream job on Tuesday, McConnell is sending signal after signal that he intends to shift the way the Senate is run — even as he looks to influence decisions behind the scenes.

Whether to keep the rule change that did away with filibusters on all administration nominees except those to the Supreme Court is one of the most controversial issues McConnell must confront, and it divides his party.

By putting the decision for now in the hands of the Rules Committee chairman, McConnell is sparing himself from refereeing a thorny debate.

 He’s also sending the signal that tough decisions will be made by his entire conference, even as he looks to put a trusted ally in charge of leading the debate.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a former House Republican leader close to McConnell, is expected to be elected as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee.

On another tough issue, McConnell is letting Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, take the lead on an Iran sanctions bill.

It’s a contrast from Reid, who helped corral a sanctions bill sponsored by outgoing Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) that was opposed by the White House.

McConnell has made breaking what he calls the “logjam” in Washington his No. 1 priority as leader. His strategy for getting the Senate to work again is to allow more votes on amendments, give more power to committee chairmen and have the chamber work longer hours.

A GOP aide said McConnell envisions himself as a leader in the mold of former Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), who offered a reprieve from the overbearing tactics of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Mansfield believed the Senate could become most productive through accommodation, restraint and mutual respect, according to his biography on the Senate’s website. 

On the filibuster, McConnell does not plan to take any quick action to reverse the nuclear option.

While liberals have argued the Senate can change its rules on the first legislative day with a simple majority vote, McConnell is signaling he wants to give his conference more time to discuss the issue. He also wants to give Blunt a chance to review the issue through regular order.

Senate Republicans could decide to leave Reid’s work untouched, but GOP lawmakers and aides say they’re more likely to codify the simple-majority threshold for most nominees by making a rules change through regular order, which usually requires getting 67 votes.

This would allow them to erase the precedent of using a simple-majority procedural vote to weaken the filibuster — which some Republicans worry could put the chamber on a slippery slope to lowering the hurdle for passing legislation.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the incoming chairman of the Senate Republican Steering Committee and a rising conservative voice, subscribes to this approach, according to a GOP aide.

It would please conservative groups such as American Values and the Judicial Crisis Network that want to keep the simple-majority standard for nominees while addressing Republican critics who say it’s hypocritical not to undo Reid’s handiwork.

Under a regular-order rules change, McConnell could argue that Reid’s precedent of “breaking the rules to change the rules” has been wiped away.  

Another option seen as less likely would be to use the nuclear option again to re-establish the 60-vote bar for nominees through a simple-majority vote.

“I think the Rules Committee would review all the different options and see what they can pass out of committee,” said one leadership aide. “I don’t know we would codify the existing rules. I don’t know it could get 67.”

Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, says passing the nuclear option debate to the Rules Committee is a crafty political move by McConnell.

“McConnell is punting on the issue for the time being,” he added. “That’s not a big loss for the Republicans. If they’re unified they can defeat a nomination on a simple majority vote and don’t have to worry about a filibuster.”

Republican aides say there is no need to find a resolution to the nuclear option issue until the Senate must consider the president’s first controversial high-profile nominee. A likely candidate is Loretta Lynch, Obama’s pick for attorney general.