Mitch McConnell Begins Dream Job As Senate Majority Leader
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Years ago, Mitch McConnell told this program he liked being in the minority in the Senate. He knew the rules of the institution, and he could use them.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now the Republican leader is in charge and is trying to make the Senate work. The man who has always wanted to be Senate majority leader took the reins of his chamber for the first time.
MONTAGNE: Mitch McConnell says he wants to see the new Senate return to its old ways, when both sides could work together to craft legislation. As NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, he'll have to win over skeptics in both parties.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Republican Mitch McConnell is one of the most powerful men in Washington, and he has never wanted to be president. It's such a counterintuitive thing in this city. Nearly every McConnell biographer points it out. Even his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, searches for a way to explain it.
ELAINE CHAO: Well, there's a real difference between being a legislative person and a - an executive person. So he has always been a creature of the Senate. He has incredible respect and understanding of the Senate.
CHANG: Chao was gliding down the hallway past the old Senate chamber, where Senators were getting sworn in. Her husband had just started his dream job. So how excited was he on his first day?
CHAO: He's very calm. He's always very cool. You know, he's very steady- very, very steady.
CHANG: So steady, McConnell wasted little time with sentimentality during his opening remarks as the new majority leader.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: I'm really optimistic about what we can accomplish. But I'll have much more to say about that tomorrow.
CHANG: It was almost as if McConnell knew there was little time to revel. Barely half an hour after he spoke, the White House announced it would veto the first piece of legislation McConnell had wanted Congress to pass, the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Conservative Democrats who were pushing the bill, like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said if people wonder why so little gets done in Washington, they should blame the White House not Congress.
SENATOR JOE MANCHIN: I mean, basically, if it all goes and legislation passes and it has bipartisan support and the president still vetoes, it'll be on his back. It will be laid at the feet of the president.
CHANG: Despite McConnell's pledge that he would preside over a more harmonious, more productive Senate, it was clear on Tuesday that this was a chamber used to fighting. Democratic leader Harry Reid was at home recovering from injuries he suffered after falling off an exercise machine. But he managed to tape a first-day video message, complete with a bandaged eye and bruised face, looking kind of like the middleweight boxer he once was.
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SENATOR HARRY REID: We're going to continue to fight for good things for this country. We understand the rich are getting richer; the poor are getting poorer. The middle class is being squeezed literally out of existence.
CHANG: McConnell says Democrats will have a chance in the new Senate to push their agenda. He's promised to let senators on both sides introduce amendments to bills, even ones distasteful to Republicans. Though, Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah says there may be a limit to that generosity.
SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: There'll be times when he'll have to, you know, make it so that there won't be amendments. But - there will be some times like that, but that's part of the Senate too.
CHANG: But the new senators who haven't yet experienced the gridlock firsthand said the Republican majority deserves the benefit of the doubt for now. It will serve both sides. Here is lone freshman Democrat Gary Peters of Michigan.
REPRESENTATIVE GARY PETERS: I think it was a clear message in the campaign that the people across this country, certainly in Michigan, want to see a Congress that functions. And that means Democrats and Republicans coming together to find common ground.
CHANG: Common ground may not be easy to find. Republicans are trying to figure out how to push back on the president's executive action on deportations in the next couple months. Then there's the debt ceiling deadline a few months after that. Republicans say they understand with control comes responsibility for getting things done. But Lindsey Graham of South Carolina says Democrats are not off the hook.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: I hope we understand that, you know, our fates are tied together.
CHANG: And Republicans are likely to find that when they pass bills like Keystone, their fates will be tied to the one Democrat with the veto pen. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.