What to Expect From Mitch McConnell’s Senate

The incoming majority leader has pledged a more open legislative process, but don’t expect a reversal of Harry Reid’s rule change for nominees.

Caption:WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to reporters following the weekly policy lunch of the Republican caucus November 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. McConnell spoke on continued problems with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act during his remarks.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
Nov. 4, 2014, 9:42 p.m.

BAT­ON ROUGE, La.—Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell won reelec­tion on Tues­day night and with it, a new title: ma­jor­ity lead­er.

Mc­Con­nell will lead a new Sen­ate ma­jor­ity in Janu­ary, re­vers­ing a num­ber of prac­tices that have defined the Sen­ate un­der Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id and provid­ing a path for­ward for Re­pub­lic­an le­gis­la­tion that has stalled in the House. With races still un­de­cided in Vir­gin­ia and Alaska and a run­off in Louisi­ana sched­uled for Dec. 6, Re­pub­lic­ans could gain a 55-seat ma­jor­ity—the same num­ber of seats Demo­crats cur­rently hold.

“I think that it’s a big deal that will help cor­rect the dir­ec­tion we’re headed as a coun­try. So I’m very up­beat about that. I think that’s great,” Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter of Louisi­ana said of the new ma­jor­ity at GOP Rep. Bill Cas­sidy’s elec­tion night watch party in Bat­on Rouge Tues­day night.

Mc­Con­nell offered a pre­view of the new Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate back in Janu­ary, lament­ing a cham­ber gone amuck while speak­ing on the cham­ber floor. At the time, Mc­Con­nell prom­ised that un­der a Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity, bills would go through a bi­par­tis­an com­mit­tee pro­cess be­fore com­ing to the floor, a “free and open amend­ment pro­cess” would be re­stored, and sen­at­ors—heav­en for­fend—would once again work on Fri­days.

“The com­mit­tee pro­cess must be re­stored. The people we rep­res­ent must be al­lowed to have a say through an open amend­ment pro­cess. And fi­nally, we have to learn how to put in a de­cent week’s work on the floor again, be­cause an­oth­er thing we’ve lost around here is an ap­pre­ci­ation for the power of the clock to force con­sensus,” Mc­Con­nell de­clared.

“Both sides will have to work to get us back to where we should be,” he con­cluded. “It won’t hap­pen overnight. We’re all out of prac­tice. But it’s a goal that I truly be­lieve we can all agree on and agree to strive to­ward to­geth­er. Be­cause restor­ing this in­sti­tu­tion is the only way we’ll ever solve the chal­lenges we face. That’s the les­son of his­tory and ex­per­i­ence. And we would all be wise to heed it.”

Re­id cer­tainly seemed to agree in a state­ment con­grat­u­lat­ing Mc­Con­nell as his suc­cessor on Tues­day night. “The mes­sage from voters is clear: they want us to work to­geth­er,” he said.

Of course, a lot can change between now and Janu­ary, when Mc­Con­nell will have the chance to fol­low through on his prom­ises.

“I would think there are a lot of Demo­crats too who would be en­cour­aged by an ap­proach like that be­cause it al­lows them to con­tin­ue to have a seat at the table, be­cause for com­mit­tees to func­tion prop­erly there’s a lot of bi­par­tis­an ef­fort that has to go in­to it,” former Mc­Con­nell Chief of Staff Billy Piper said.

Re­in­stat­ing an open amend­ment pro­cess would be a ma­jor re­versal of the way Re­id has run the Sen­ate. As ma­jor­ity lead­er, Re­id has been loath to al­low Re­pub­lic­an amend­ments to make it to the floor, of­ten filling amend­ment slots with su­per­fi­cial meas­ures to pre­vent Re­pub­lic­ans from adding their own.

The move has not been pop­u­lar with Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers, many of whom have at­temp­ted to block votes from com­ing up for con­sid­er­a­tion in re­tali­ation.

“I think Re­pub­lic­ans have had about eight amend­ment votes in as many months. That’s ri­dicu­lous,” Vit­ter said. “That’s tear­ing the best tra­di­tions of the Sen­ate to shreds. So I do hope we get back to the pos­it­ive tra­di­tions of the Sen­ate—full de­bate, full amend­ment pro­cess, open pro­cess.”

But an open amend­ment pro­cess also means more tough votes for a new ma­jor­ity. Re­id has used the amend­ment tree to pro­tect his mem­bers; Re­pub­lic­ans will have no such lux­ury.

There is one un­pop­u­lar Re­id rule that Mc­Con­nell ap­pears un­likely to change: the Demo­crat­ic ma­jor­ity’s in­voc­a­tion of the nuc­le­ar op­tion. Mc­Con­nell spokes­man Mike Bru­mas would not com­ment on such a change, say­ing that Mc­Con­nell would have to dis­cuss the rule change with his con­fer­ence. But former staffers said that any al­ter­a­tion to the rule that Mc­Con­nell has railed against (which changed the 60-vote threshold re­quired to ap­prove of ex­ec­ut­ive branch nom­in­ees to merely a simple ma­jor­ity) is un­likely. Such a change would hinder the new Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity’s power.

That will be of par­tic­u­lar im­port early next year, when the Sen­ate is ex­pec­ted to take up Pres­id­ent Obama’s nom­in­a­tion to suc­ceed out­go­ing At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er. Simply put: The nuc­le­ar op­tion that Re­id put in place could be used against him if Re­pub­lic­ans de­cide to stall the next AG—or if Re­pub­lic­ans win the White House in 2016.

All of these op­er­a­tion­al changes, former Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ar­iz., said in an in­ter­view, are de­signed not only to pass le­gis­la­tion, but to show the pub­lic that the Sen­ate can work.

“He’s go­ing to want to show that Re­pub­lic­ans can gov­ern,” Kyl said of Mc­Con­nell. “But there’s a cau­tion­ary note here, of course: It takes two to tango. All the le­gis­lature can do is pass bills to the pres­id­ent. He’s got to de­cide if he’s go­ing to veto them or not. So I hope people don’t get the idea that just tak­ing the Sen­ate equals the Re­pub­lic­ans now run­ning the gov­ern­ment. I think they’re go­ing to do their best to find things that will get the pres­id­ent’s ap­prov­al.”¦ But the ques­tion will be if the pres­id­ent will ac­cept the le­gis­la­tion that they pass to him.”

Un­der their new two-cham­ber ma­jor­ity, Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans be­lieve that they can get enough Demo­crat­ic votes to send ap­prov­al of the Key­stone XL pipeline, a re­peal of the Af­ford­able Care Act’s med­ic­al-device tax, free-trade agree­ments, and a num­ber of House-passed jobs bills that have lan­guished in the Sen­ate this Con­gress to the pres­id­ent’s desk in 2015. Many would also like to see a re­peal of the health care law’s risk cor­ridors and an over­haul of the tax sys­tem ad­ded to that list, but the chances of earn­ing enough Demo­crat­ic votes on either pro­pos­i­tion are lower.

Re­pub­lic­ans in Janu­ary will face the harsh real­ity that in or­der to win the ma­jor­ity, they had to take down some of their most will­ing part­ners on the oth­er side of the aisle. Sens. Mark Pry­or, D-Ark., and Kay Hagan, D-N.C., who oc­ca­sion­ally ally them­selves with the GOP and sup­por­ted the Key­stone pipeline in par­tic­u­lar, both lost reelec­tion on Tues­day night. And Sens. Mark Be­gich, D-Alaska, and Landrieu were still in danger late Tues­day night.

Piper dis­missed those losses. “First, those Demo­crats can thank Harry Re­id’s strategy for their cur­rent pre­dic­a­ment and that’s their prob­lem,” he said, not­ing that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and oth­er GOP al­lies will re­turn to Con­gress next year.

The ques­tion then be­comes wheth­er Obama will veto any of those bills. But Re­pub­lic­ans are con­fid­ent that pas­sage with even minor Demo­crat­ic sup­port will put pres­sure on the White House to al­low those meas­ures to be­come law. Obama has after all only ve­toed two bills since tak­ing of­fice, Re­pub­lic­ans say.

The biggest con­cern for Demo­crats go­ing in­to 2015 is the specter of a re­con­cili­ation bill—a pro­cess by which a simple ma­jor­ity can pass a after a lim­ited de­bate. House Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­man Paul Ry­an of Wis­con­sin in­dic­ated earli­er this year that Re­pub­lic­ans would pur­sue a re­con­cili­ation strategy and many Sen­ate ob­serv­ers be­lieve that the up­per cham­ber will bring one to the floor.

Re­con­cili­ation bills, which are gen­er­ally formed by the Budget Com­mit­tee and can only be used once per year, are in­ten­ded to be lim­ited to budget­ary is­sues, but have been used much more ex­pans­ively in the past. And al­though they are still sub­ject to a pres­id­en­tial veto, that has Demo­crats wor­ried.

“I can as­sure you that the Speak­er and Sen. Mc­Con­nell’s staff [are] already work­ing to try to fig­ure out what they can do via the re­con­cili­ation pro­cess versus what they can do via the reg­u­lar pro­cess on a whole host of things. So they’re go­ing to fight for as broad and ex­pans­ive set of re­con­cili­ation in­struc­tions as they can,” said Jim Man­ley, a former Re­id spokes­man who worked for the lead­er for more than 20 years. “They’re go­ing to try to jam everything they can in there.”

But the Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity will have “a nar­row win­dow next year to get things done” be­fore the pres­id­en­tial primary sea­son starts, Man­ley said. Mc­Con­nell will have to con­tend with fel­low Re­pub­lic­an Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Ken­tucky, and Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida—all of whom are con­sid­er­ing run­ning for pres­id­ent in 2016. That kind of race to the right could cost the GOP some votes on bi­par­tis­an le­gis­la­tions and put Mc­Con­nell in a dif­fi­cult po­s­i­tion, Man­ley said.

“My bot­tom line is I’m skep­tic­al that much of any­thing can get done next year,” he said.

There is one thing that cur­rent and former Sen­ate lead­er­ship staffers for both parties agree on: The chances of a gov­ern­ment shut­down this year are ex­tremely low. Al­though there are voices with­in the Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence that have called for the cham­ber to pass a short-term con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion in Decem­ber, set­ting up a ma­jor fisc­al fight early next year after their party has taken the ma­jor­ity, Mc­Con­nell and most of his mem­bers are not ex­pec­ted to join in that push.

It is very likely, Sen­ate ob­serv­ers say, that the cham­ber will pass an om­ni­bus spend­ing bill be­fore the Decem­ber dead­line, leav­ing the new ma­jor­ity to wait un­til next fall to make changes to the fed­er­al budget.

“To me, it would make the most sense to, in whatever man­ner, get the 2015 bills com­pleted as soon as pos­sible—through whatever man­ner, a year­long CR, in­di­vidu­al bills, whatever it is. Be­cause there’s go­ing to be plenty of work for the next Con­gress to take care of that’s reg­u­lar-or­der kind of busi­ness than hav­ing to go back­wards and take care of un­fin­ished busi­ness from the Re­id Con­gress,” Piper said.

Mc­Con­nell spokes­man Bru­mas said that the con­fer­ence would dis­cuss the length of any spend­ing meas­ure when mem­bers re­turn to Wash­ing­ton next week.

Both sides ex­pect a quick and easy lame-duck ses­sion, dur­ing which Re­id is ex­pec­ted to push through a num­ber of ex­ec­ut­ive- and ju­di­cial-branch nom­in­a­tions.

But the first real fight of the new Con­gress could come quickly on its heels. The debt ceil­ing is set to ex­pire early next spring—though re­ceipts from the 2015 tax sea­son could push back that dead­line to as late as June or Ju­ly. And after House Re­pub­lic­ans held back on a fight in 2014, thanks to the ur­ging of Speak­er John Boehner, ob­serv­ers ex­pect a con­ten­tious slog over rais­ing the na­tion’s debt lim­it next year.

“I’ve got five bucks that says they lead us over the cliff,” Man­ley said. “We man­aged to es­cape last year re­l­at­ively un­scathed.”¦ But Cruz “¦ he’s go­ing to make it very dif­fi­cult, ab­so­lutely.”

Re­pub­lic­ans would not com­ment on what spe­cif­ic con­ces­sions they would seek in ex­change for vot­ing to in­crease the debt ceil­ing, but ar­gued that the pres­id­ent will have to en­gage with them on the is­sue if he ex­pects them to vote yea. “I don’t think we’re able to get this done un­less the pres­id­ent is a will­ing par­ti­cipant and do­ing it in a way that can pass the Con­gress,” Piper said. “That’s the great un­known is what the pres­id­ent’s pos­ture go­ing to be after [the elec­tion].”

The next ma­jor cliff could come in Septem­ber, when Con­gress will likely have to pass an­oth­er fund­ing bill to keep the gov­ern­ment’s doors open.

Mc­Con­nell is ex­pec­ted to push strongly for a re­turn to the reg­u­lar ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess, whereby the House and Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations com­mit­tees pass 12 sep­ar­ate budget bills and then agree upon the de­tails in con­fer­ence—something Con­gress has not done since 1994.

“I know he wants the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess to work,” Kyl said of Mc­Con­nell, a former ap­pro­pri­at­or him­self. “So I think you’ll see him do what John Boehner did, which was to take a lot of the power out of the lead­er’s hands, put it back in the com­mit­tee’s hands.”

That pro­cess can be­gin im­me­di­ately when Re­pub­lic­ans take power in Janu­ary, with all 12 bills due to the pres­id­ent’s desk by Sept. 30, 2015.

With Re­pub­lic­ans in charge of both cham­bers, Demo­crats are con­cerned about what some of those bills may en­tail. Though the last few years have lacked very many—and House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee Chair­man Har­old Ro­gers has en­sured that—with a two-cham­ber ma­jor­ity, Re­pub­lic­ans could be em­boldened to make more drastic changes.

“They’re go­ing to try to at­tach one un­ac­cept­able rider after an­oth­er to all the ap­pro­pri­ations bills, set­ting up a pos­sible show­down over a num­ber of those bills next year,” Man­ley said. “I’m really pess­im­ist­ic.”

But, Piper ar­gued, Re­pub­lic­ans are well aware of the lim­it­a­tions to their power and Obama’s wait­ing veto pen. “The Re­pub­lic­ans I don’t think have any il­lu­sions that they’re go­ing to be able to run rough­shod. They un­der­stand how the three branches of gov­ern­ment work,” he said.

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