McConnell's message to Obama: 'We have an obligation to work together'

A tough negotiator and seasoned tactician, Mitch McConnell also wants to show that Republicans can govern. As presumptive new majority leader, now is his chance.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Ky., joined by his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, celebrates with supporters at an election night party in Louisville, Ky., on Tuesday.

Let’s make a deal. That was part of Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell’s victory message to President Obama on Tuesday night:

“I don’t expect the president to wake up tomorrow and view the world any differently than he did when he woke up this morning. He knows I won’t either. But I do think we have an obligation to work together on issues where we can agree,” said the Senate minority leader from Kentucky. 

Senator McConnell is expected to become the majority leader when a new Republican Senate convenes in January.

In a press conference with reporters Wednesday afternoon, he reiterated the need to find areas of cooperation between the White House and Congress.

“When the American people choose divided government, I don’t think it means they don’t want us to do anything,” he said. “We ought to start with the view that maybe there are some things we can agree on to make progress for the country.”

On the issues where both parties may find common ground – say, on energy or a narrow slice of tax reform – the president will find in McConnell a highly skilled political tactician and a very tough negotiator. 

In his speech on Tuesday, the senator referred to his childhood fight with polio as a lesson in perseverance. In his just-completed race for his sixth term, he again proved he had the fight and might to go the distance, trouncing Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes by nearly 16 points.

Now the man who ran his campaign as a “no” vote against the president wants to “work together” with his nemesis? Democrats well remember his signature line before the 2010 midterms: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

They also remember his ability to muster his Senate troops to deny the president the funds to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, his successful shoot-to-kill of the so-called “public option” in the Affordable Care Act, and his stopping carbon cap-and-trade legislation in its tracks.

But McConnell has also been at the heart of several high-profile deals in the last few years – a point that he sometimes made on the campaign trail. 

In 2011, when negotiations over increasing the debt ceiling stalled, the Republican minority leader stepped in, meeting with Vice President Joe Biden – who, according to Bob Woodward’s book “The Price of Politics,” was known in the White House as “the McConnell Whisperer.”

In the end, it was a tough deal that denied the president his much-sought increases in taxes or revenues, and punted the hard choices about debt and deficit reduction to a bipartisan “super committee.” The panel failed to agree on a way forward, triggering ongoing automatic spending cuts through 2021. 

That set the stage for the next financial crisis, the so-called “fiscal cliff” – and McConnell again reached out to the vice president. More than a dozen conversations later, an agreement was struck on New Year’s Day 2013 that passed both houses of Congress. But this time, conservatives were much more upset, because the deal gave the president his long-sought tax increase on the wealthy.

Months later, McConnell was once more at the center of deal-making, working with Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada to end the partial government shutdown that was being blamed on Republicans. Again, tea party lawmakers were livid.

The reason the Kentucky senator is now willing to open the door a crack is because he is looking ahead to 2016, when several GOP senators in blue states will be up for reelection, political analysts say. That, and he wants to show that Republicans can govern.

Americans “are concerned about competency and accomplishment ... what they know is Congress doesn't do anything and the government is incompetent," says McConnell’s spokesman, Don Stewart.

But that does not mean McConnell will go soft. After the fiscal cliff deal, he vowed not to grant Democrats new tax revenue – a position that could kill any bipartisan attempt at tax reform.

Additionally, McConnell will have his right flank to worry about, such as Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who wants the Senate to take a right turn now that Republicans are in charge.

McConnell is “a very shrewd and skilled tactician,” says Jim Manley, a former aide to Senator Reid. The aide says he can see the possibility of “small and medium-ball” agreements related to energy, trade, infrastructure spending, and maybe small-business tax reform.

“But I think more likely scenario is that Republicans, especially in the House, are going to continue to overreach,” Mr. Manley says. And in the Senate, he points out that at least three Republicans – including Cruz – are eyeing the presidency, and will use the Senate as a launching ground for their primary campaigns. 

That “does not bode well” for legislative cooperation, he says.

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