Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell recently sat down with the Alley in his Capitol office suite to chat about how he'll run the Senate if the GOP takes back the majority; his relationship with House Republicans and whether he regrets saying that Republicans' top priority is to make Barack Obama a one-term president. The excerpts below have been edited for clarity and length.
Alley: You told National Journal a few years ago that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Do you regret saying that?
McConnell: In the first six months of 2011, the speaker and I spent an endless amount of time with the president, trying to negotiate a significant debt and deficit package that would help save this country from the morass into which we have sunk the last three or four years. The most conspicuous evidence of that being the fact that our debt is now the size of our economy, which makes it look a lot like Greece. So, I rest my case.
We were ready to do business with the president. Any reference to the 2012 election I may have made in 2010 also included the fact that that was two years away and in the meantime we needed to get down to business and see what we could do for the country.
Alley: Can you articulate what the goals are, what a Republican majority in the Senate would try to do?
McConnell: Well, there's nothing more important than getting the country's fiscal house in order and we believe deeply that it's very much related to this tepid recovery. This massive government spending that we've engaged in has not worked. The residual effect of that is persistent joblessness and massive debt that's even bigger than it was. So, we certainly believe that getting a handle on long-term and short-term deficit and debt is the single biggest thing. Everything else pales in comparison to that.
If I were setting the agenda instead of my counterpart - if 'Obamacare' is still on the books, unless we had a Republican president with a different idea, and I doubt we would - repealing Obamacare would be item one on the agenda of a new Senate.
Now, we'll hopefully have a Republican president whose advice on what the agenda would be we'd pay a lot of attention to, but my guess is his views would be very similar to ours as to what we ought to be doing first. One thing that I would advocate that he do - it's entirely his decision, obviously - but I think we need some kind of action out of a new president on day one about the regulatory overreach that's been going on the last three years.
This regulatory regime of this administration believes that if you're making a profit, you're up to no good. They're here to help because you must be cheating your customers, mistreating your employees, or both. And so we're here to modify your behavior. That whole nightmare of over-regulatory activity is, in my view, the principal reason - coupled with, obviously, the possibility of taxes going up - it's the reason we're having such a tepid recovery from a deep recession.
Alley: You talk about what you would do in the majority. How do you get there? What's the 51st seat?
McConnell: I think this is going to be a really, really close outcome one way or the other. I think either our friends on the other side are going to have a really narrow edge or we are. Neither side is going to be in a kind of blowout position like they were in '09 and '10 as a result of the two great elections in a row they had in '06 and '08. The most I'll say by way of prediction is I think it's going to be real close. Real close.
Alley: Are you concerned about keeping your leadership post if Republicans don't win back the Senate?
McConnell: The leader of the Republican Party in the Senate has already got enough commitments to be reelected the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate.
Alley: Do you feel that Obama respects you and the Senate?
McConnell: I don't have any problems with the president personally. We have a good personal relationship. Last year we had a lot of interaction until the Budget Control Act, and after that I haven't had much discussion with him. And of course, I didn't have much discussion with him the first two years. But I don't - I'm not angry about that. I don't put him down for that. They owned the place. They had a 40-seat majority in the House and 60 votes in the Senate. They didn't need us, and so the only thing they might've been interested in from us during those two years was to pick off one or two so they could claim something was bipartisan that wasn't.
Alley: What do you say to complaints by House Republicans that it hurts their negotiating position when Senate Republicans cuts deals with Senate Democrats?
McConnell: The friction between the House and Senate, even when one party controls both, is as old as the republic. And if you think about it, it's inevitable. The House is a place of great passion, quick reaction. They can do things very rapidly. And the Senate was constructed on purpose not to do things rapidly - and rarely disappoints. So there's always a kind of natural friction between the House and Senate. I don't think it's alarming. I think it's routine. And it is a fact that we don't do things as quickly, and frequently do things differently.
Alley: In a presidential election year, people don't often pay much attention to Congress. Why should they pay attention this summer?
McConnell: We have passed a lot of legislation on a bipartisan basis that the country needs. It's just that they don't go right at the biggest problem we need to solve. And we're going to have a perfect storm of issues coming together at the end of the year, and I welcome that. Because that will force us back to the table and hopefully we'll be able to get a result from a president who wants to deal with big issues in and around the end of the year.