‘Master of the Senate’

by Robert Costa

Over on the home page, I chat with Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader:

“There are active inside players and more prominent outside players,” McConnell says. Playing the role of choir director–cum–leader means one has to share the spotlight — and the music. When senators speak out against leadership positions, “I don’t find it a bother,” McConnell asserts. “I don’t view our conference as a zero-sum game, in other words, if somebody becomes more prominent, somebody becomes less prominent. We have 47 independent contractors doing their own thing, to the best of their ability. I’m not a dictator.” His job, he declares, is “all carrot and no stick. ”

Entitlement reform, he predicts, could be an area of bipartisan cooperation in coming months:

As for President Obama, he will be forced to “pivot” if he wants to accomplish anything on the Hill. “Let’s just discuss some things that we can actually do with this guy,” McConnell responds, when I press him to expand on the scope of his hopes. “Look, if he’s willing to honor the results of the election, and do things that we would do anyway, which is what happened on the tax bill, why would we say no?”

“If he’s willing to engage in significant entitlement reform, we’ll be there to help him,” McConnell says. And as a student of history, he is more than aware that such cross-party collaboration is politically feasible for both sides, if structured with care.

“Reagan and Tip O’Neill did the last Social Security fix in 1983,” McConnell recalls. “I was running in 1984 and the subject never even came up. The reason it didn’t even come up was because it was a bipartisan deal. In fact, the best thing about divided government is that it is the time you are most likely to be able to achieve entitlement reform.” McConnell pauses. “Now, will the president do it? We will see. Should he? Absolutely.”

He also reviews the lame-duck session:

The arms pact and “don’t ask” repeal, McConnell argues, both “would have passed” at any point last year. He also swats back the creeping conventional wisdom that Republicans caved at the last minute. “More noteworthy,” he says, “was the fact that we got the president — in a move eerily reminiscent of [George H. W. Bush’s] decision to go back on his pledge of ‘Read my lips, no new taxes’ — to sign a bill extending the current tax rates for two more years, something he had demonized and run against for several years.”  

A day earlier, McConnell had defeated Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s 2,000-page, $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill, after cajoling nine GOP appropriators off the fence and into opposing the bill. “That was a clear indication that power was shifting already as a result of the November election,” McConnell observes. “Now we get to determine how the spending will be done for the balance of the fiscal year. And we’ve settled the tax-rate question for two years.”

Read the rest here.