Politicians out of power like to promise the moon and the stars to voters. They make contracts and pledges to America. Some vow to make the oceans recede and usher in a new era of hope and change. Others merely claim they have the power to make D.C. listen. But you don’t hear any grand promises coming from Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader who hopes to become majority leader if the 2014 elections go the GOP's way. He just wants to put some points on the board.
“We’re hoping the American people will give us a chance to set the agenda,” McConnell told THE WEEKLY STANDARD in an interview. “I’ve been the defensive coordinator for eight years. I’d like to have a chance to be the offensive coordinator. You can score on defense—I thought the Budget Control Act was an example of scoring on defense—but it’s harder to score on defense.”
But how many points can Republicans score—what can they practically achieve with majorities in the House and the Senate—as long as the White House is occupied by President Obama? “I think that will depend on him,” McConnell said, referring to the president. “If your definition of achievement is actually having something signed into law, we obviously have to be completely honest with our supporters that that will depend upon him being willing to support what we’ve done.”
McConnell mentioned free trade agreements and “comprehensive revenue-neutral tax reform” as areas where the president might be willing to drop his current demands (on tax reform, Obama wants $1 trillion in new revenue) and work with Republicans if they win a majority. That may be good policy, but it’s unlikely to inspire Tea Partiers. "In Washington, what passes for bold is, 'Hey, we're for revenue neutral tax reform.' It's like, I don't care. I would just as soon be back at home or practicing medicine," Kentucky's junior senator Rand Paul said in a recent speech.
What will Republicans do on immigration with a Senate majority? McConnell voted against “comprehensive immigration reform” earlier this year, but would he be willing to bring up a bill that included a path to citizenship? “I can’t imagine that a Republican Congress is going to be interested in giving the kind of bonus for an illegal entry,” he said.
What about a bill that stopped short of granting full citizenship but legalized the status of illegal immigrants? “I’m interested in the other parts of the bill,” McConnell said. “I think we ought to move to a merit-based legal immigration system and move away from things like country quotas and chain migration. There are improvements that ought to be made. I don’t think we’re there yet on border security. We’d be open to discussing the issue,” McConnell said. But, he added, such measures would be moved “in pieces,” not in a “comprehensive” bill.
On health care, Republicans will face a dilemma if they win a Senate majority. Will they pass a bill that both repeals Obamacare and replaces it with a conservative alternative? Or is it pointless to vote on a replacement plan until a Republican occupies the White House? McConnell didn’t give a definitive answer, saying, “we’ll have to see what it looks like. Our goal is to get rid of the entire thing.”
“We will pursue also a lot of the good ideas that have been percolating both in the House and Senate. Over there, they’ve passed a lot of legislation that is very, very good and drops into a black hole. That won’t happen anymore,” McConnell said. “We’ll put things on the president’s desk that he may veto, and that’s the way it is. But we may be able to put some things on that he’ll sign.”
“If he hangs out on the left, like he has since the 2010 election, honestly I think it will be difficult to get right-of-center achievements signed into law,” McConnell said. “If he moves to the center like Bill Clinton did who signed welfare reform and agree with a Republican Congress to balance the budget, we may be able to do some business together. It’s really up to him.”
Of course, unlike Clinton in 1995, Obama is not concerned about his own reelection anymore. And after the 2013 government shutdown, Republicans are unlikely to engage in the kind of brinksmanship on the debt ceiling that resulted in the passage of the 2011 Budget Control Act. This year, Republican leaders, including McConnell, allowed a debt limit hike with no strings attached until March 2015. “I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of some kind of achievement for the country in connection with raising the debt ceiling,” McConnell said. “Sometimes it’s been a pretty good tool. Certainly it wasn’t lately.”