Mitch McConnell builds case for 2016

Mitch McConnell is building the case that this Senate is much more productive than the last one.

The Kentucky Republican, who ascended to majority leader after repeatedly ripping the Democratic-led Senate as “dysfunctional,” has to show that the GOP can govern. If he falls short of that goal, Democrats will likely win back Senate control in 2016.

McConnell and his Republican conference got off to a rocky start to the year as they bickered with House GOP lawmakers, most notably over tying funding for the Department of Homeland Security to immigration policy. 

But now, Senate Republicans are on a bit of a roll.

{mosads}Republican senators say McConnell passed an important leadership test this week by reaching a compromise on a long-stalled anti-human-trafficking bill, allowing him to claim another legislative accomplishment in his first 100-plus days in charge.

Last week, President Obama signed a Medicare “doc fix” bill after the Senate passed it 92-8. And GOP leaders have recently trumpeted bipartisan deals on trade, education and reviewing the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran.

Securing the votes on the trafficking bill, which first stalled on the floor in March, wasn’t easy. It was initially a noncontroversial measure but quickly became embroiled in a fight over abortion.

McConnell played hardball, saying on CBS’s “Face the Nation” last month that he wouldn’t seek a floor vote on attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch until the trafficking bill cleared the upper chamber.

After weeks of posturing and finger-pointing with Senate Democrats and the White House, senators struck a deal on the abortion language Tuesday.

“Yeah, I’m happy with [the deal],” he told reporters Tuesday when asked about his strategy of holding up Lynch.

“We needed to finish the trafficking bill; it’s an important bill,” he added.

The Senate on Wednesday will vote on amendments to the trafficking legislation before passing the underlying bill. McConnell will then call for a vote on Lynch, who has the votes to be confirmed as Eric Holder’s replacement.

It’s likely that McConnell will cite the trafficking legislation when he makes his case next year that the Senate GOP majority deserves to stay in power. In 2016, Republicans will have to defend 24 Senate seats, while Democrats have to defend 10.

Behind the scenes, some Republican senators urged McConnell not to compromise on abortion language in the bill and use it as political ammunition in 2016.

“There was some concern. People were asking, ‘Why are we compromising on this?’ We should instead take this abortion issue they’re blocking right at them and talk about the federal funding of abortion,” said a GOP senator who requested anonymity to discuss his colleagues’ objections.

It’s a political strategy then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) routinely employed last year. He would bring bills to the floor that had little chance of passing, such as an increase in the federal minimum wage, for the purpose of drawing a contrast between Democratic and Republican candidates come election time.

Reid preferred forcing Republicans to vote up or down instead of opening legislation to rewriting and amendments on the floor.

“What’s harder to do is to figure out how to put the pieces together to move something on the floor. It requires some compromise. It requires some consensus building,” the GOP senator added.

McConnell tapped Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Judiciary Committee, to hammer out the latest compromise with Democrats.

The Judiciary Committee initially passed the legislation with bipartisan support, but Democrats said they voted for it only because they overlooked a provision they argued would have expanded the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition against using federal funds to pay for abortions.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a prominent centrist, said he didn’t have a problem with the Republican language, but many liberals in his caucus saw it differently.

“I was fine with it. It didn’t make any sense to me, but they wanted to make sure that the majority of the caucus, a very vocal part of the caucus, was going to be heard,” he said of Democratic leadership. Manchin has not been shy in publicly criticizing Reid, who is retiring at the end of this Congress.

Many Republicans thought Reid and other Democrats were using the abortion language as an excuse to block the trafficking bill and slow down the GOP agenda.

“The Democrats were responding to their political base with regards to the substance of it, but I think it was also about who runs the Senate. And the Democrats are still trying to run the Senate,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.), the third-ranking member of the GOP leadership.

Thune acknowledged that overcoming Democratic opposition burned valuable time off the Senate calendar. However, he argued it also fulfilled McConnell’s campaign-year promise of getting the Senate back to the business of legislating.

“It took some time off the clock, but I think we as a majority have to figure out how to get things across the finish line, and ultimately Mitch’s persistence paid off,” he said.

McConnell said Tuesday that rank-and-file Democrats have thanked him privately.

“I think the way the Senate’s being run is very positive, with a significant number of Democrats who have come over to me frequently and say, ‘Thank you for changing the way the Senate is operating,’ ” he said.

Senate Republicans note they passed a budget resolution before Congress’s April recess that they are now attempting to merge with the House-passed version.

They are also highlighting the passage of a dozen bipartisan bills, such as the Clay Hunt Veterans Act, which improves veterans’ access to mental health services, as well as votes on more than 100 amendments during the first 100 days of the Senate Republican majority.

“[McConnell] stated he wants to make the place work, and this is an opportunity to prove it,” said Sen. Angus King (Maine), an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

The majority leader delivered a speech to the Senate at the beginning of last year in which he promised Republicans would increase the productivity of the chamber if voters gave them control.

“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 said at the time.

Getting the Senate back to voting regularly on legislation hasn’t been as easy as some Republicans envisioned. It took nearly a month to pass legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline. February was consumed by the immigration fight and the White House exerting its leverage on the new GOP Congress.

While Republicans have rallied since then, they also face major tests in the coming months on reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, renewing Patriot Act provisions and raising the debt limit.

Tags Angus King Eric Holder Harry Reid Joe Manchin John Cornyn John Thune Mitch McConnell

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