- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2015

At some point Tuesday, Vice President Joseph R. Biden will turn to Sen. Mitch McConnell and recognize him as “the majority leader,” fulfilling a lifetime goal for the Kentucky Republican and marking him as the key figure in determining what gets done in Washington over the next two years.

Those on both sides of the aisle say Mr. McConnell has the tools to be successful — if anyone can succeed at what has become an almost impossible job.

Mr. McConnell has a penchant for deal-making and a professed desire to foil President Obama’s more liberal plans. Much of his tenure will depend on how the White House chooses to approach him. Even more could depend on how much trouble he gets from his right flank, which is intent on battling Mr. Obama at every turn.

The entire House and more than a third of the Senate will be sworn in Tuesday, including Mr. McConnell, who easily won re-election to a sixth term in November. The House remains in GOP hands while the Senate switches back to Republicans after eight years in Democrats’ control.

“People are going to be very impressed with how he approaches the job. He is a student of the Senate,” said former Sen. Trent Lott, who served two stints as majority leader and said it’s a very different challenge from leading a minority party. “The whole burden of moving the Senate rests on his shoulders, and he’s going to have to find a way to work with Democrats.”

First up will be decisions on how many Democratic tactics the Republicans will discard. Mr. McConnell has promised to allow bills to work their way through committee before reaching the floor and to allow some amendments on those bills, which could create headaches for lawmakers hoping to avoid difficult stances on issues.

More weighty will be a decision on whether to reverse Democratic leader Harry Reid’s use of the “nuclear option” to change the filibuster rules for presidential appointments.

While all Senate Republicans opposed Mr. Reid at the time, a number of them now say it would be folly to go back to the old scheme because they would be holding themselves to a higher standard than Democrats.

Other senators want to take the rules change even further, lowering filibuster standards for Supreme Court justices as well as other executive nominees.

Mr. McConnell said voters have embraced a right-of-center national government but expect results from it.

“We need to both look for areas where we can make some progress for the country and obviously to do that we’re going to need some Democratic senators,” he told CNN in an interview aired Sunday. “There are other areas where we’re not going to agree. What I hope Senate Republicans will present to the country is a conservative right-of-center governing majority, serious people elected in serious times to try to get results.”

Mr. McConnell’s deal-making skills are not in doubt. Less known are his understanding of Senate rules and his fierce commitment to First Amendment and campaign speech rights. Indeed, he combined those for years to successfully block campaign finance regulations from passing.

He lost that battle when George W. Bush came into the White House and Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, passed a new set of rules. Mr. McConnell led a lawsuit that failed to overturn the McCain-Feingold law, but a later court case did roll back the changes.

“He is a great warrior when he believes in something, and he believes very strongly in the First Amendment, has been a warrior on that issue for years and is unapologetic about it,” said Republican strategist Michael McKenna.

Democrats argue that Mr. McConnell’s commitment is to protecting money in politics, and they have vowed to test him.

One of the oddities of the past eight years has been the stability of top congressional leaders. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Mr. Reid, Mr. McConnell and House Speaker John A. Boehner all have led their party caucuses through the political tsunamis of 2008, 2010 and 2014.

All four will be reconfirmed as leaders Tuesday.

Mr. Boehner will be elected by a vote of the House, but there is no such process in the Senate. The majority leader’s post is a century-old creation of the chamber and isn’t found in the Constitution. Instead, it’s a product of parliamentary rules that grant him the right to be recognized first on the floor, meaning he can control the chamber’s agenda.

Mr. Biden, who as vice president is the presiding officer of the Senate, will signal Mr. McConnell’s new position merely by recognizing him as “the majority leader.”

Mr. Biden has played a major role in Mr. McConnell’s time as leader. The two men negotiated the 2010 tax cut extension, the 2011 budget deal and the 2013 “fiscal cliff” agreement that made most of Mr. Bush’s tax cuts permanent.

But with Mr. Biden eyeing a presidential bid and Mr. Obama looking to cement a liberal legacy in his own final two years in office, it’s not clear how much room there will be for the White House to find common ground with Mr. McConnell, who will have presidential hopefuls of his own party to manage within the Republican caucus.

Jim Manley, senior director at Quinn Gillespie & Associates and former senior aide to Mr. Reid, said the most important relationship in Washington now will be between Mr. McConnell and Mr. Boehner, who need to figure out how to get on the same page despite different rules for their jobs.

Mr. Manley said Mr. McConnell has gone out of his way to protect Mr. Boehner as the latter has feuded with his conservative wing, but that could prove more difficult with Republicans in control of the Senate.

“I don’t believe House Republicans are going to take it anymore when they’re told whatever they want to do can’t get the votes in the Senate,” Mr. Manley said. Meanwhile, Mr. McConnell will have to negotiate between Republicans who want to notch some legislative accomplishments and those who are running for president and thus may want message votes instead of firm results.

Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist, said Mr. McConnell is in a tough spot because expectations are high. For years, Republicans have been told the solution is retaking the Senate. Now that they have, they still lack the votes to overcome a committed Democratic filibuster or a presidential veto.

“I think he’s going to be a fine majority leader, but I think everyone’s going to look at it like a failure because he doesn’t actually solve all of the nation’s problems immediately,” Mr. McKenna said.

“The reality of it is that the situation hasn’t changed that much,” he said. “The balance of gravity in the Senate has shifted from [Democrats] Mary Landrieu and Joe Manchin to [Republicans] Susan Collins and Bob Corker. His hands are tied by that, his hands are tied by institutional inertia, his hands are tied by timing. After Labor Day, the agenda is going to be taken over by the presidential campaign.”

Mr. Lott said he expects Mr. McConnell to try to get things moving in the Senate by jump-starting the annual budget and spending process, which calcified under Mr. Reid’s control. Mr. Lott also said he expects Mr. Reid and Mr. McConnell “may work together better than anybody would expect.”

Mr. McConnell has a powerful tool for wearing down opposition in his vow to keep the Senate working longer each week and forcing it to finish business.

Mr. Lott recalled advice he was given by a former parliamentarian: “There are only two rules that matter in the Senate: exhaustion and unanimous consent. If you get them exhausted enough, they’ll agree to almost anything unanimously.”

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