Mitch McConnell predicts more bipartisanship in next Congress

Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader, predicted GOP gains in the midterm elections would force more bipartisanship in 2011 and beyond.

Michael Bonfigli
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky speaks at a Monitor breakfast Aug. 5.

A day after meeting with President Obama privately for the first time, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky today predicted that there will be more bipartisan cooperation after midterm elections, expected to boost Republican head count in the Senate.

“The election is not tomorrow, and I’m not going to give you a prediction…but most people feel there’s going to be a midcourse correction,” he told reporters at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast. “The president is a very smart guy, and I think he figures he’ll be seeing a lot more of me in the future.”

Despite fresh media criticism that the Senate is broken, McConnell says that there are areas of potential agreement with the White House – and, after the election, there could be more. These include ratifying long-delayed trade agreements with Columbia, Panama, and Peru, promoting nuclear power, and electrification of cars and trucks. “I think he’s going to have a newfound interest in reducing the deficit, and I think that provides an area for bipartisan agreement,” he added.

With confidence in the Congress at an all-time low – 11 percent according to the Gallup poll’s annual "Confidence in Institutions" survey in July – the Senate is often targeted as the source of the gridlock and McConnell viewed as leading the forces of obstruction. Responding to a critical column today by the Washington Post’s David Broder, “A Senate without leaders,” McConnell said that the Senate functions as the founders intended – as a place where the rules allow senators to take time on issues and reach consensus “when consensus was appropriate.”

“I don’t think we have a collegiality problem. We are in the middle of is a great debate about the future of the country,” he said.

If Republicans often say no, it’s because President Obama and his advisers opted to use their big majorities in the House and Senate to pursue “a far left agenda.” Given the president’s early approval ratings around 70 percent, “It was not an irrational decision,” McConnell said. “It had the inevitable effect of unifying our side.”

Moreover, the Obama administration has passed “some very bad legislation,” he says, noting health-care reform, financial regulation, and the stimulus, as well as nationalizing student loans and running banks, insurance and car companies. Democrats can claim to have presided over one of the most productive legislative sessions in history, as President Obama did in May, or they can complain that they are being stymied by Senate Republicans. “They can’t have it both ways.”

Since January 2009, the Senate has failed to take up some 350 bills passed by the House on issues including climate change, jobs, housing, campaign finance and food safety. On Wednesday, two Republican senators broke ranks to pass a $26 billion measure preventing layoffs of teachers and state workers. “I really don’t envy [other GOP senators], having to go home and explain what they just didn’t do,” said Senate majority leader Harry Reid, commenting after the vote.

But in fact the relationship between the two leaders is more collegial than such public remarks suggests. The subtext of most leadership negotiations is protecting members from tough votes. Majority leaders do it by using Senate rules to block the minority from offering amendments; minority leaders to it by refusing to support procedural votes unless they can offer those amendments.

“What happens when you’re in the majority is that your members don’t want to take any tough votes, so they’re always beating on the majority leader to file cloture or fill up an [amendment] tree. Harry has filled up the tree 35 times, which is as many as the last five leaders combined,” he said. “I’ve got members that won’t vote cloture unless they get amendments….I don’t think any of this is a threat to the nation.”

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