Obama and McConnell, one on one: Can they get business done?

Incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell heads to the White House Wednesday afternoon to discuss legislative priorities. One issue that could come up is immigration.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., right, and other Congressional leaders meet with President Barack Obama, regarding the debt ceiling, Wednesday, July 13, 2011, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington.

At President Obama’s invitation, incoming Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell heads to the White House Wednesday afternoon for a rare one-on-one meeting to discuss legislative priorities.

For Senator McConnell of Kentucky, who has been bashing Mr. Obama for most of his presidency, it’s not a matter of like or dislike of the president. It’s about whether they can do business, and there, the menu of options seems limited: perhaps something on trade or tax reform.

“We don’t have any personal problems,” McConnell said Tuesday about his relationship with the president. “There is, however, a deep philosophical difference.”

Speaking at a Wall Street Journal forum, the Kentuckian said he was “perplexed” by Obama’s “dramatic move to the left” since a “butt-kicking election” that was a referendum on his presidency.

In just a few weeks, Obama has announced a sweeping executive action to protect millions of immigrants from deportation, a climate-change deal with China, and proposed regulations curbing ozone pollution and restricting Internet broadband providers – all cutting against the grain for McConnell.

“So I don’t know what we can expect in terms of reaching bipartisan agreement,” McConnell continued. “That’s my first choice, to look at things we agree on – if there are any.”

Actually, the senator has been at the center of several high-profile deals between the GOP and White House in the past few years: a 2010 agreement to extend the Bush-era tax cuts; a 2011 pact to raise the debt ceiling; a New Year’s Eve bargain in 2012 that averted the so-called fiscal cliff.

His talking partner was not Obama, but Vice President Joe Biden – a former senator known around the White House as the “McConnell whisperer.” Of course, Mr. Biden also needs Obama's sign-off on deals.

A former aide to the vice president, speaking on background, describes McConnell as being “all business” when it comes to negotiations. “He’s very matter of fact. He only negotiates when he wants to reach an agreement,” and he’s been careful “not to get at odds” with the GOP-controlled House.

The immediate test for McConnell and his House partner, Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, comes next week. On Dec. 11, the federal government runs out of money, and both men have vowed that the era of government shutdowns is over – despite rebels in their caucuses who don’t agree.

Besides trade and taxes, one issue that may well be discussed at Wednesday's meeting is immigration. McConnell said on Tuesday that after the new Republican-controlled Congress is seated in January, he’s inclined to bring up immigration reform in pieces – starting with tighter border security, expansion of visas for high-tech workers, and provisions for agricultural workers.

These are all areas that have bipartisan agreement, but the White House has insisted that a path to citizenship for undocumented workers already in the United States be part of reform – which is anathema to many Republicans. 

At a recent Monitor breakfast with reporters, Dan Pfeiffer, senior adviser to the president, said, "I don't want to rule anything in or out" about step-by-step immigration reform. He said the White House wants to hear from Republicans first before "we start making ultimatums" about vetoing piecemeal bills.

McConnell has also made clear that he’ll be working with moderate Senate Democrats who may not agree with the president, bringing to the floor legislation that Obama could sign – or veto. That would include changes to the Affordable Care Act and energy legislation, such as approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Former Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi says it’s crucial that McConnell stay in touch with the White House. The ex-senator recalls picking up the phone and calling President Clinton, and sometimes he would cut deals without bringing his Senate staff into it – simply working with the president.

“I can’t see Barack Obama being able to do that with Mitch McConnell right now,” he adds. “Mitch will have the challenge of running the Senate, keeping the cats in a group, dealing with a president who doesn’t want to and doesn’t like to deal with the Congress.”

But if Obama is smart, he says, he’ll take advantage of the Biden-McConnell pipeline.

Maybe the next private meeting will be with the McConnell whisperer.

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