Mitch McConnell and the New Senate Leadership

Mitch McConnellBy Jack Minchew.

With the Republican Party’s overwhelming electoral victory in the midterm elections this Tuesday, in which the GOP picked up at least 7 Senate seats and further increased their lead in the House of Representatives, the balance of power in the US Congress has fundamentally shifted. Most importantly, conservatives now control the Senate, likely making current Minority Leader Mitch McConnell the first Republican Majority Leader since Bill Frist in 2007. While it remains to be seen in the days immediately following the election exactly what McConnell has planned for the 114th Congress, some things are certain.

A (partial) return to Senate traditions

Up until recently, the US Senate was referred to as the greatest deliberative body in the world, with a reputation for respectful debate and bipartisan compromise. This respectful atmosphere was due not only to the relatively close and collegial relationships that senators have historically held, but also to longstanding Senate rules and customs that enshrined the rights of the minority party and encouraged cooperation. Over the past several years of rule by Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, many of those rules and customs have been discarded. Reid was famous for his confiscation of powers traditionally reserved to Senate committee chairs, and for centralizing legislative control within his own office. Moderate Republican senator Olympia Snowe frequently cited the weakening of the committee system as a major source of congressional gridlock, ultimately resulting in her own retirement from Congress. Reid also was well known for his policy of all but completely preventing amendments on Senate bills, in order to shield vulnerable Democratic incumbents from difficult votes. This practice was heavily criticized by Republicans (and even some Democrats), as actively preventing compromise on Senate proposals.

McConnell, who has vigorously attacked Reid for these decisions over the past several years, has vowed to return more power to the individual committees, and to allow more amendments on the floor of the Senate. Despite these supposed returns to traditional Senate customs, there is one Reid policy that McConnell is not expected to repeal: the infamous anti-veto rules change, which Reid invoked in November 2013 in response to Republican filibusters against presidential nominees. Sometimes referred to as the “nuclear option”, the rules change removed the minority party’s ability to filibuster executive branch nominees. At the time, McConnell referred to the change as “an unprecedented power grab”, and “un-American”. Apparently he has since revised his opinion.

Ted Cruz & Co.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz has drawn a lot of media attention since last year’s debt ceiling debacle, in which he encouraged House Republicans to revolt against House Speaker John Boehner, leading to a government shutdown. Cruz has firmly established himself as a thorn in the side of Republican leadership, especially Boehner, and is likely to be just as much of a nuisance for Majority Leader McConnell. Cruz, speaking on CNN on election night, deliberately declined to state whether or not he would support McConnell as Majority Leader. While it is unlikely that Cruz would ever be able to unseat McConnell, his tendency to undermine caucus leadership and steal the spotlight will undoubtedly be giving McConnell headaches for years to come. 

The junior Senator from Texas isn’t the only Republican Caucus member that McConnell has to worry about. Utah Senator Mike Lee is a well-known Cruz ally with a grudge against the new Majority Leader (McConnell called him a bully in a leaked conference call). Fellow Tea Party backed candidates such as Marco Rubio (FL) and Rand Paul (KY) both have much better personal relationships with McConnell, but are still likely to break with him on issues that matter to the conservative base. It also remains to be seen where new Republican senators will align, especially Joni Ernst (IA) who won with significant Tea Party support, including that of Cruz himself.

A small window for action

While the 2014 Senate map was one that overwhelmingly favored the Republicans, the 2016 map is not so favorable. Just under half of the Republican caucus will face re-election, many in Democratic states, and presidential election year turnout always tends to favor Democrats. With this in mind, McConnell may only have two years as majority leader. Add in the fact that many members of his caucus are considering possible presidential runs, and McConnell has even less time to pass meaningful legislation.

President Obama has pledged to work with Speaker of the House Boehner and Majority Leader McConnell, and to take the Republican wave as a message to cooperate, but it remains to be seen if there is anything that the two sides will be able to come together on. With Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, President Obama is likely to face many conservative bills, many of which he will veto. Political observers expect Obama to face legislation authorizing the final stage of the Keystone XL pipeline, which is widely supported by Republicans and by some Democrats, as well as House jobs and tax bills that have been bottled up in the Reid controlled Senate.

As for new compromise legislation, McConnell has suggested that he would be willing to work with liberals to lower the US corporate tax rate (among the highest in industrialized nations), and invest in domestic infrastructure upgrades. Some have expressed hope that a McConnell led Senate could pass comprehensive immigration reform, but considering the looming prospect of a presidential election, and the Republican base’s opposition to such reforms, this is considered unlikely. One thing is clear, though: at the end of the day, everything comes down to Mitch McConnell.

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