Don't hold your breath, America: Why Mitch McConnell's Senate won't be any more productive

The presumptive majority leader is talking a big game about compromise — but you shouldn't believe it

Published November 7, 2014 3:25PM (EST)

Mitch McConnell                              (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Mitch McConnell (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Sen. Mitch McConnell’s grin could not be contained at a press conference Wednesday in Louisville. A day after blowing out Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes by a 16-point margin, Kentucky’s political mastermind is set to seize a political prize he has coveted since being a Senate intern over 50 years ago.

The country has witnessed McConnell’s adept maneuvering and manipulation of the rules to block several Senate Democratic proposals and White House appointments. Now he must turn his ferocious power appetite to governing, without spoiling a new majority or GOP prospects for the presidency in two years. McConnell has reached his goal, and all are anxious to see what he’ll do with it. For starters, McConnell said, when he is elected majority leader the new Republican majority will end the gridlock in the Senate.

“The American people have changed the Senate,” he said. “So I think we have an obligation to change the behavior of the Senate and to begin to function again.”

Those close to the senator have said this marks a return of the statesman in McConnell, a man who devours Senate history and idolizes fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay as one of the great dealmakers in U.S. politics.

“A key message of Mitch McConnell’s campaign was to get the Senate working again; I think he’s a man of his word,” Republican strategist Scott Jennings, a former McConnell aide, told Salon. “He is a man who believes in the historic role the Senate has played to deliberate and to move things along. He’s been mortified that the Senate has been turned into a legislative bottleneck.”

At least three prominent Democrats have phoned the GOP leader saying they’re anxious to be relevant again, and he plans to do just that.

McConnell claims he will be open to ideas from both parties, and plans on making Senate committees the laboratories of legislation and allowing lawmakers to offer floor amendments.

When Kentucky’s Senate race was called Tuesday, former Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat, said he believes McConnell is being sincere. "I actually think Mitch is going to go for history," Daschle told HuffPost Live on Tuesday. "He's had to play the game and he's had to do what he's had to do to get where he is, but he has a chance now -- for however long -- to make history.” The GOP leader is also putting on a diplomatic mask with President Obama by setting up possible agreement on international trade and tax reform, and by going as far as describing their sparse relationship as “cordial.”

It goes without saying that these conciliatory words involve some calculus on McConnell’s part. The Senate map in two years shows seven Republican seats up for reelection in states Obama won twice. Given McConnell’s 2010 pledge to limit Obama to one term and the disdain expressed for the president in his own reelection campaign, there is doubt their odd coupling can forge any major legislative agreement between Senate Republicans and the White House. The National Journal reported just before Election Day that McConnell told “major league GOP donors” that he plans to “use appropriations and the budget process” to undermine Obama as much as possible.

The speculation on what comes next in the Senate cannot omit McConnell’s insatiable appetite for power, which is perhaps matched only by his desire to make history. Even when McConnell proclaimed the president was waging holy war on Kentucky’s coal industry, he reminded voters of how he struck three deals — the 2010 fight over the expiring Bush tax cuts, the 2011 debt ceiling logjam, and the 2013 fiscal cliff agreement — with the Obama administration in times of crisis. The way McConnell sees it, his involvement was one of the few times Congress and the Obama administration were able to accomplish something of consequence. That could be important for Republicans, given how their strategy of subverting the president’s agenda has taken a toll on their brand.

If McConnell’s effort to break the Senate to save it had any other goal beyond his personal scoreboard, it may be in search of a legacy beyond his reputation for helping infuse millions of dollars into federal elections. Now that Republicans own the entire legislative branch, it will be up to McConnell to navigate how to please the base without upsetting the Electoral College map for whoever their 2016 nominee will be.

McConnell acolytes who carved up the president and Democrats over the summer aren’t promising reconciliation on every issue, but they know full well they’re under pressure to govern responsibly. “We need to show the country over the next two years that we can govern,” said Jennings, who worked in the Bush White House. “We need to show people we can make that regular order happen regardless of your partisan beliefs. The idea that the institution of the Senate is working, not that we’re going to agree on every bill, but we decide and we move on things in the Senate.”

Those with a darker view of McConnell are skeptical at best, and point out that he led the GOP with an insurgent fervor as minority leader that helped paralyze the Senate in the first place. Through the use of repeated filibusters and cloture votes that blocked votes on gun control and minimum wage hikes, Democrats had labeled McConnell the “guardian of gridlock” long ago.

McConnell’s blockade on presidential nominees reached a tipping point when soon-to-be Minority Leader Harry Reid led Democrats to employ the so-called nuclear option to approve appointments through a simple majority. The surrogates who proclaim McConnell is preparing to put the Senate back into its role as the more thoughtful and working chamber of Congress neglect his warnings to Democrats last year about their decision to go nuclear. "If you want to play games and set yet another precedent that you'll no doubt come to regret, I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle you'll regret this," McConnell said in November 2013. "And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think."

The Senate under McConnell is also one of mixed messages according to the Kentucky lawmaker’s own words. In an editorial co-written by House Speaker John Boehner this week, McConnell said Senate Republicans would be “renewing our commitment” to repeal the healthcare law. This comes just days after McConnell acknowledged a new GOP majority falls well short of the 60-vote threshold needed to pull out the federal overhaul “root and branch” as he often promised.

The doublespeak comes down to McConnell’s inability to control a growing caucus of ambitious conservatives, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who may want to continue thwarting the Obama administration. As leader of the minority, McConnell had been feckless at controlling Cruz in much the same way Boehner has been helpless at stopping the Tea Party caucus in the House. At the very least McConnell appears willing to let conservative members have a platform to throttle the administration in the form of Senate hearings, which will range from inquiries on the administration’s handling of Ebola to Benghazi.

Asked if he plans to allow probes into the IRS, McConnell said: “Oh, you can count on that.”

In a moment that could haunt his leadership, however, McConnell promised there would be no government shutdowns and that the U.S. would not default on the national debt during his tenure. Whether that’s a warning to the right wing of his caucus or a plea to let him do the talking, only the next few months will tell.

By Phillip M. Bailey

Phillip M. Bailey is an award-winning freelance journalist and Kentucky native who covers city, state, and national politics. Follow him on Twitter at @phillipmbailey.

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2014 Elections Gop Mitch Mcconnell Republican Party Senate