On Obamacare, McConnell says Senate Republicans remain committed to fully repealing a law he says is “Europeanizing” the country. But he acknowledges that there is much internal debate over how to do this, and whether a demand for repeal should be tied to a fiscal deal that is crafted later this year. “We’ve been going after it tooth and nail, in every way we can, all along the way,” he says. “Exactly how to achieve that, when you don’t have a Republican Senate or a Republican president, is a vexing problem.”
The future of immigration reform is also hazy. The Gang of Eight’s legislation recently passed the Senate with bipartisan support and now lingers in the House. Many Beltway insiders say the House will probably pass a series of bills and then to go conference with the Senate. But McConnell is far from ready to say that a conference is inevitable. In fact, he says, the divide between the Senate and House over process could easily stop any version of reform from ever reaching President Obama’s desk.
“The Democrats’ insistence on having it be comprehensive is what makes this hard to pass,” he says. “Their goal is clear: to make the folks here legal voters as rapidly as possible. Ideally, what you would do is what the House is trying to do: break it up into pieces and let each piece stand on its own. The reason I’m not optimistic about an acceptable outcome is that I can’t imagine the Senate passing pieces that improve legal immigration, and I can’t envision the House doing comprehensive.”
“I’d prefer a Stephen Douglas approach,” McConnell says, referring to the late Democratic senator’s approach to the Compromise of 1850, in which Douglas ushered a package of separate bills through Congress in order to keep the peace between slave states and free states. He says Douglas’s genius was recognizing that one large, controversial bill can easily sink, but lawmakers can deftly arrange single-issue bills to achieve a similar end.
McConnell pauses and points to a collection of oil paintings on his wall featuring 19th-century political giants, including his own hero, former House speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky. In his monotone drawl, he doubts that Senate Democrats are willing to take any lessons from Clay, Douglas, or the rest.
What about the president? I ask him directly about the status of their working relationship. McConnell deflects and flatly recounts that he saw Obama at the White House last week as the White house celebrated the University of Louisville’s basketball team in the Rose Garden. “He did his homework on the team, and he noted that I was a Louisville graduate, which I appreciated,” he says.
“But beyond basketball?” I ask.
“We have a cordial relationship,” he says. “I don’t have any problem with him personally. I think his administration is doing all of the wrong things, and I oppose him almost always. It’s not a question of personal respect, he’s just in the wrong place on most things, and his administration has done a lot of damage to the country.”
With that, McConnell rests his case. He’s been talking for 45 minutes, far longer than usual, and he’s ready to leave. It’s late on Friday, and soon he’ll be heading home — home to a primary campaign that is already a brawl. McConnell shakes our hands and returns to his private study, off to handle legislative matters.
That relentless work ethic, along with his proven ability to win policy and political battles, may lift him to victory next year. McConnell can be uncomfortably terse, and being Darth Vader makes him a target. But he is, as ever, hard to beat.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.