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Senate Leaders Look Ahead to 2016

McConnell, left, and Reid, right, are on opposite sides of the debate on the Syrian refugee bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
McConnell, left, and Reid, right, are on opposite sides of the debate on the Syrian refugee bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senate leaders spent Friday afternoon claiming victory on the spending and tax bills that passed before lawmakers left town, and said they are now looking to highlight differences between the two parties heading into the election year.  

Democrats and Republicans held back-to-back news conferences after the final votes of the year, each saying the Senate is functioning again, and they’re the reason why.  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., touted legislative accomplishments, standing next to a red poster with bold white letters that read, “#BackToWork.”  

“By any objective standard, I think the Senate is clearly back to work,” McConnell said. He thanked the “follower-ship” of the Democratic Caucus for teaming up with Republicans to get things done.  

“I think the way you get the Senate working again is when members outside of the leadership level begin to have confidence in each other, to work on bills together, to think they’re worth passing and to help make it happen,” McConnell said.  

Democrats argued they were a much more cooperative minority party, and said they were able to secure Democratic principles in some of the major bills that passed this year.  

“All the things that my friends boast about, my Republican friends, we could have done them years ago, but they obstructed them,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, R-Nev.  

Reid and McConnell did agree that the Senate would return to the regular process for spending bills in 2016. In recent years, the government spending bills have been packaged together as a so-called omnibus, rather than addressing each bill individually.  

But, with an election year ahead, Democrats and Republicans will also look to highlight divisions between the two parties.  

McConnell demurred on the details of his legislative agenda, but said, “from time to time we will also point out the differences” with Democrats. Reid and his leadership team listed off Democratic priorities for next year, including raising the minimum wage, and addressing student loan debt, and ensuring women and men have equal pay.  

And, Reid said, they plan to bring up an issue that been a nonstarter in Congress in the past.  

“We’re going to do something more on guns,” Reid said. “We’re not going to be silent on that.”  

Reid said they plan to look at the ability for people on the terrorist watch list to buy guns, and enhancing background checks for someone who is “crazy” and a criminal.  

McConnell dismissed Democrats’ gun control proposals and noted, “I think there’s bipartisan opposition in the Senate, of considerable significance to the kinds of measures they typically advocate on that issue.”  

But McConnell appeared to open the door for a potential response that GOP leaders in the House have been touting after recent shootings: an overhaul of the mental health system .  

Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., have pointed to a bill sponsored by Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., though Democrats disagree with a number of provisions. Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., have introduced a similar measure in the Senate.  

Asked about the prospects of moving a mental health bill next year, McConnell said, “Those kinds of issues, like the ones you’ve mentioned, which I think a lot of people are interested in, on both sides. Hopefully, you know, we can process bills like that with a minimum amount of divisiveness.”  

Congress will return to take on all of these issues and partisan fights in the new year, with the Senate returning for a pro forma session on Jan. 4 and convening Jan. 11, the day before the 2016 State of the Union. As the senators departed, they wished reporters a “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.”  

Before McConnell left, he leaned forward on the podium and quipped, “I’m sure you’re going to miss us, right?”  

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