Ending Washington gridlock largely in Mitch McConnell’s hands now

“We’re going to go back to work and actually pass legislation,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said at the University of Louisville a day after his party’s triumph at the polls.
“We’re going to go back to work and actually pass legislation,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said at the University of Louisville a day after his party’s triumph at the polls.
(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Mitch McConnell built his ascent to Senate majority leader on voter anger over Washington gridlock that he helped foster while in the Republican minority against President Obama.

Now the Kentucky senator will need to convince tea party Republicans who thrived on that approach to join him in a new strategy that depends, in part, on making deals with Democrats and the White House.

A clever, if stiff, tactician who excels at the art of constructing elaborate political mazes so he can lead the way through, McConnell presented a softer image Wednesday, smiling and confident as he promised a new day in Congress.


“We’re going to go back to work and actually pass legislation,” McConnell said at the University of Louisville, a day after his party had secured at least 52 Senate seats. “There will be no government shutdowns and no default on the national debt.”

For McConnell, who once famously said the Republican Party’s top priority was to make Obama a one-term president and saddle him with “an inventory of losses,” the strategy of opposing the president may no longer be enough. The new Republican-controlled Congress will be under intense pressure to prove that it can change the dysfunctional body, particularly if it wants to help elect a Republican to the White House in 2016.

“People understand that we’ve got to show that we’re responsible, that we can govern, that we can move the nation ahead,” Republican Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said in an interview. “Mostly what you are going to see is people acting responsibly.”

The bar has been set low by the current Congress, arguably the most unpopular and unproductive in history. Tops on McConnell’s agenda is to revive the Senate’s stalled legislative process, replacing the brinkmanship of crisis governing with the slow grind of bill-making.

McConnell is expected to move quickly on several fronts, such as approving a budget and passing a string of modest bills with bipartisan support on such issues as approving the Keystone XL pipeline, boosting international trade talks and tweaking the Affordable Care Act. One idea with support on both sides of the aisle is repealing a tax on medical devices that is part of the healthcare law.

Despite campaign promises about repealing Obamacare, Republicans — with 52 seats so far and three states still in play — lack the 60 votes needed block a Democratic filibuster and the 67 votes necessary to overcome a presidential veto.


“The first thing I need to do is get the Senate back to normal,” McConnell said Wednesday, predicting that Republicans and the White House would find areas of agreement.

But a more calculating side of McConnell was also on display, seeking to drive an early wedge between Obama — who might want to round out his final two years with a few bipartisan legislative victories — and congressional Democrats, who may be reluctant to give the GOP credit for easing legislative deadlock.

McConnell said he had talked to the president Wednesday about new trade initiatives and tax reforms, issues that cause shudders among many Democrats who preemptively blocked such initiatives from the White House when they held the majority.

“The Democrat that counts is the president of the United States,” McConnell said.

With an expanded majority in the House, Speaker John A. Boehner is expected to take a similar approach, busying the chamber with votes on smaller-scale bills to cut regulations on business.

“You’re going to see Mitch McConnell doing everything he can to make the Senate work,” Corker said. That means bringing back robust floor and committee debates on bills that outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had all but abandoned, as well as extending the work week and sending legislation to Obama despite the threat of presidential veto.

Corker said McConnell had been preparing Republicans for the opportunity to control the Senate for years, adding that GOP lawmakers would “revolt” if the new leader’s promised reforms didn’t happen.

“I think some on the other side of aisle question Mitch’s commitment. We don’t,” Corker said.

Already, however, some restless Republicans are challenging McConnell’s authority. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a potential presidential contender, has not said whether he would back the Kentuckian for the leadership post. Ben Sasse celebrated his election in Nebraska by warning that Republicans can’t just “trim around the edges.”

Cruz said Wednesday that the GOP victories give the party a “strong mandate to pursue big reforms,” adding that with “complete control of Congress, Republicans can change it.”

That confrontational stance is one McConnell has noticeably tried to avoid. Six senators, including Cruz, also vowed to use “all procedural means necessary” to stop Obama’s plans to allow some immigrants in the country illegally to remain without fear of deportation.

Democrats, who will be in the minority of both chambers when the new Congress convenes in January, will play a big role in whether McConnell succeeds. But he may be able to exploit Democrats’ internal divisions.

A growing group of about two dozen senators from both parties have been meeting privately since last year’s government shutdown, sometimes over meals, other times in Capitol Hill offices, pushing for ways to improve the way the Senate works.

“The bottom line is we can’t continue in the Senate the way we’ve been,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). “Let them bring up crazy stuff.” He said it would be easier for him to explain to constituents why he supported a controversial bill than to explain why no actions were being taken at all.

Ironically, several moderate Democrats who might have supported McConnell’s agenda lost their seats Tuesday, including senators from Arkansas and North Carolina. But other Democratic senators will welcome the chance to join Republicans in crafting bipartisan legislation, lawmakers say.

“A lot of Democrats are willing to sit down — as long as it doesn’t take a blatantly political approach,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat, said in telephone interview from his state, Illinois.

If compromise can be found and Congress can function, he said, “everybody looks good.”

Twitter: @lisamascaro