In practically the same breath, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) touts both his goals for bipartisanship in 2008 and blames Senate Democrats for poisoning the atmosphere of the chamber in the first place.
The dueling messages from McConnell, now entering his second year as the GOP leader, underscore the larger problem confronting the Senate in the second year of the 110th Congress. Both parties continue to spout the rhetoric of comity, but just as was the case when the session began 12 months ago, the talk translated into very little as time went by.
McConnell, in a wide-ranging interview last week, said he understands the views of the naysayers after a year of Democratic Senate control that brought little substantive legislative accomplishment for either side. But McConnell — who rejects charges that his party is responsible for the chamber’s near-constant rifts — isn’t ready to hand over 2008 to partisan politics.
“I don’t blame you for being skeptical,” McConnell acknowledged last Thursday, just two days into the second half of the Congressional term.
“I think the fundamental mistake the majority made [last year] is that they couldn’t turn off the election … rather than pivoting and going in the direction I recommended, looking back a year ago, and tackling some big issues like Social Security, they just couldn’t turn the election off.”
McConnell argued that the Democrats, swept into power on a wave of electoral unrest in 2006, couldn’t get beyond their desire to try to force President Bush to end the war in Iraq. He recounted scores of votes Senators cast on the administration’s war policy, which he said took up precious Senate time and soured many lawmakers’ attitudes.
“We had 36 Iraq votes in the Senate — leaving the public with the perception that all we did around here was fight about Iraq and have investigations,” McConnell asserted. “It was not good for them politically. Their approval ratings tumbled.
“I recommended at the beginning a year ago that we not go in that direction, but we did.”
Not surprisingly, Democrats offer a different take on the first year of their stewardship of the Senate, which is divided 51-49. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) acknowledged late last year that Democrats learned the hard way that they lacked the force of a true majority to enact the changes his party wants, and only with greater numbers can it make its priorities a reality.
Indeed, the Democrats and Republicans were locked in a procedural game of chicken for most of 2007. Democrats filed a record number of cloture motions to cut off debate and pass legislation. Republicans, for their part, wouldn’t agree and in effect filibustered much of the Democratic agenda.
Chalking it up to Republicans refusing to “get rolled,” McConnell said last week that his party recognized when it needed to stand up. In fact, many conservative lawmakers in his Conference reveled in that approach — and already are quietly grumbling that McConnell and the rest of his leadership team are poised to wave a white flag to Democratic initiatives this year to appease a public disaffected by Washington, D.C.
At last week’s GOP retreat, for instance, Republican Senate leaders discussed ways to broaden their appeal beyond the GOP base and how to work with the other side to pass legislation this year. Newly installed Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said after the private session: “We want to change the way Washington does business, and we believe the way to do that is to work across party lines to get results on big issues that Americans genuinely care about.”
That kind of language runs somewhat contrary to the wound-licking talk from many GOP Senators after the 2006 losses, when many openly called for a return to core GOP principles like fiscal discipline and ethics, and for a message that Republicans are a strong alternative to the Democrats. The GOP leadership’s new bipartisan language also has raised the ire of some conservatives, particularly in the blogosphere where last week the site Redstate.com accused Senate Republicans of “capitulating to the Democratic agenda.”
But despite those charges, McConnell said he doesn’t see any discontent in his Conference from conservatives who would prefer to move further to the right than seek out deals with Democrats in a critical election year.
“Our members are never going to be in lock step 100 percent of the time on anything,” McConnell said. “We try to synthesize that as best we can, and to the best of my ability, that which has the maximum comfort level with the greatest number of people.”
And while it seems the Senate GOP is embracing a compromising approach to 2008, McConnell said he doesn’t see a sea change in priorities for his party, arguing its goals for the year include long-standing themes of “holding the line on discretionary spending” and “opposing efforts to raise taxes.” Beyond that, however, McConnell said he will focus on pushing bipartisan-backed legislation while waiting to outline specific priorities until his party has settled on a pick for the White House this year.
“Once that’s resolved on both sides, we’ll have a clear picture of how we try to fit into that,” McConnell said.
McConnell acknowledged that the early tone this year may not seem so different from what he was preaching in the beginning of 2007, when both he and Reid vowed to work together on issues such as an increase in the minimum wage and stricter lobbying and ethics rules. Both issues ultimately became law, but only after months of interparty wrangling and finger-pointing.
Asked whether today’s bipartisan rhetoric will fade as quickly as last year’s did, McConnell responded: “We’ll see. Some [legislation] is better than none. There were some bipartisan moments in the beginning, but I think the intensity with which they just wanted to keep scoring points and scoring points and scoring points on the war” soured the atmosphere.
In fact it wasn’t until the waning days of the year when the clock was ticking on Senate adjournment that Senators agreed on a few must-pass bills, like staving off looming tax increases on a sector of Americans and enacting a massive omnibus spending package to keep the government on its feet.
“That was a good example of how the Senate can work,” McConnell said. “There was a lot more interest in completing our work in December.”
Yet in nearly all of those cases, Republicans proved the winner since Democrats had to give in to the GOP’s demands to get the legislation through. Bush insisted on keeping to a strict spending limit on the omnibus spending bill despite Democratic desires for additional funds for certain programs, and Congressional Republicans refused to agree to Democratic wants to find offsets to pay to fix the alternative minimum tax increase.
McConnell said Republicans showed last year that even in the minority, they could flex significant muscle with 49 Senate seats and the power of the presidency. And while he looks ahead “cautiously optimistic” that Congress can come to the middle to get things done in 2008, McConnell said Republicans “will fight vigorously” to oppose Democrats when they go too far.
“We are not powerless,” he said.