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McConnell, Obama Size Up Their New Relationship & Goals

McConnell, Obama Size Up Their New Relationship & Goals

By Caitlin Huey-Burns and Alexis Simendinger - November 6, 2014

President Obama and Mitch McConnell woke up to the same reality on Wednesday: that the new Republican-led U.S. Senate would have a profound impact on their respective jobs -- and legacies. In separate post-election press conferences, each man sounded an optimistic tone about working together and finding common ground. But it was also clear that they have competing interests.

Obama knows the next two years are his last at the helm of his party. But for McConnell, the next Congress could be just the beginning of what he hopes will be a lasting GOP majority. Basking in the glow of victory, the soon-to-be Senate majority leader met with reporters first. He acknowledged that in order for his party’s big wins to last, he has to make a case for governing.

“We are going to function,” he said at an unusually long and energetic (by his standards) press conference at his alma mater, the University of Louisville. Throughout the election cycle, Democrats tried to portray the Kentucky Republican as “the guardian of gridlock.” The GOP, in turn, blamed Harry Reid for a dysfunctional Congress. In the end, the Republican argument won out, as the party gained at least seven seats in the upper chamber.

“The gridlock and dysfunction can be ended,” McConnell said, promising that there would be no government shutdowns and no defaults on the national debt. His tone and approach seemed to warn party colleagues in both the Senate and the House against becoming overzealous and unrealistically ambitious.

McConnell also took a final shot at Reid, who seldom brought bills up for votes: “The first thing I need to do is get the Senate back to normal … going to go back to work and actually pass legislation,” he said, hinting at what he thought the election meant.

Obama’s tone was conciliatory, even wistful, during his hour-and-a-half press conference as he described his hopes for cooperation with House and Senate Republicans.

But beneath the president’s restrained rhetoric (“it doesn’t make me mopey”) was a politician who waved off questions about lessons learned, denied the steam had escaped his presidency, and defended the popularity of Democratic policies, such as higher minimum wages, even if voters Tuesday appeared to reject his economic arguments along the same vein.

“I maybe have a naïve confidence that … at the end of the day when I look back I’m going to be able to say the American people are better off than they were before I was president,” he said. “And that’s my most important goal.”

McConnell, the winner of a sixth term on Tuesday, has never had presidential ambitions. Instead, majority leader has always been his sought-after prize. But colleagues with their eyes on the presidency in 2016 could complicate his role. One of them, Texas’ Ted Cruz, said on election night that he is not sure whether he will support McConnell for majority leader. However, Rand Paul, who proved a valuable ally in his Kentucky colleague’s re-election race, is also considering a presidential bid.

But McConnell dismissed the notion that the 2016 race would muddle his goals. "I serve in a body with a bunch of class presidents," he said. "I am not troubled by ambition. I think we can accommodate that and still make progress for the country."

By Wednesday, he and House Speaker John Boehner were already working on their agenda for the lame duck session and the new Congress in January. The two GOP leaders outlined their vision in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal, slated to run on Thursday. In it, they cite tax reform, health care costs, terrorist threats, school choice, and the national debt as issues they will address in the new year.

Notably, they also mentioned “renewing our commitment to repeal ObamaCare, which is hurting the job market along with Americans’ health care,” on the priority list, despite McConnell having already cited the difficulty of repealing the law.

The two leaders, along with Reid and Nancy Pelosi, will meet with Obama at the White House on Friday to discuss goals and next steps. McConnell said he talked to Obama earlier in the day, and mentioned trade deals and tax reform as areas in which they could find agreement.

The Senate is also likely to move on items Republicans campaigned on, including approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which the president delayed amid election year politics.

But McConnell had a warning for the president on his intention to take executive action on immigration, comparing such unilateral action to “waving a red flag in front of a bull.”

During his remarks Wednesday, Obama repeated his vow to exercise authority this year to ease immigration enforcement for undocumented workers, a step conservatives are already condemning as “amnesty.” He called his pending action getting “started on that.”

But he also said his decision could be deferred if Republican leaders send comprehensive reform legislation to his desk.

The controversial Keystone pipeline is not going to move faster through the current prolonged State Department and judicial reviews just because Republicans won on Tuesday, Obama suggested.

And he said the Affordable Care Act is not going to be repealed on his watch, adding that the individual mandate must remain in the law for the ACA to work.

Even as voters say they want Washington to work better, Obama defended as “natural” a democratic process that often ends in stalemates.

“Congress will pass some bills I cannot sign,” he noted. “I’m pretty sure I’ll take some actions that some in Congress will not like. That’s natural.”

Although Obama volunteered a willingness to try “some different things” in dealing with McConnell and Boehner -- losing to the speaker in golf and sharing some Kentucky bourbon with the incoming Senate majority leader, for example --the president gave little ground after a stark midterm repudiation of Democrats.

Since he took office in 2009, his party has lost at least 69 House seats and at least 13 Senate seats. Divided government in 2015 will pit the White House against both chambers of Congress. While there are examples in history of modern presidents enacting significant policy in similar scenarios – Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan come to mind -- the president offered no such comparisons.

“I’m certainly going to be spending a lot more time with them now,” he said of the Republicans on Capitol Hill.

The process of negotiating through the December lame duck period, which will be presided over by the outgoing Congress, and next year’s agenda, steered (or not) by the GOP has just begun. In describing Friday’s planned meeting and phone calls with newly elected lawmakers and returning incumbents, Obama said he looks forward “to Republicans putting forward their governing agenda. I will offer my ideas on areas where I think we can move together to respond to people’s economic needs.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.

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