Washington Wednesday: McConnell’s record

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, June 20th, 2018.

Thanks for listening to today’s episode of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: And I’m Kent Covington. First up on The World and Everything in It: Washington Wednesday.

This month Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell became the longest-serving Republican leader in the Senate, eclipsing Bob Dole’s 11-year from 1985 to 1996.

His colleague, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, paid tribute to McConnell on the Senate floor. He said McConnell just has a knack for winning.

ALEXANDER: He is undefeated in his own political campaigns, winning 6 Senate races in Kentucky, more than any other commonwealth senator. He’s been elected Republican leader more than any other U.S. Senator, each time unanimously.

That’s perhaps a surprising feat for a man who’s one of the most controversial figures in Washington. It’s difficult to find an elected leader who has taken more fire from both sides of the aisle over the last decade than Mitch McConnell.

To some conservatives, McConnell is not conservative enough. A group called the Senate Conservatives Fund launched a blistering attack against the majority leader in 2014, when he was up for reelection.

AUDIO: McConnell even joined Harry Reid in opposing Ted Cruz’s effort to defund Obamacare. Send a message to Mitch McConnell today. If he wants to vote like a Democrat, he can become a Democrat. 

That attack ad followed McConnell’s efforts to beat back the group’s influence on GOP Senate primaries.

But even as McConnell has clashed with some conservative factions within his party, Democrats charge that he’s really in the back pocket of those very same conservatives. While some on the right say he’s too quick to compromise, Democrats say he’s entirely unwilling to bend.

To many on the left, McConnell’s been something of a political villain, particularly in years past when he played the foil to President Obama’s agenda.  

MCCONNELL:  Some have said that it was indelicate of me to suggest that our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term. 

McConnell heard there in 2010 after a Republican wave gave his party control of the House and a six-seat gain in the Senate. He defended his full-court press against the Obama administration, saying that winning back the White House was the only way to advance a conservative agenda.

But that has become another point of criticism within his own party. Six years later, Republicans reclaimed the White House, while hanging on to majorities in both chambers of Congress. Still, some big legislative efforts have stalled. Most notably, last year’s effort to repeal and replace Obamacare.

MCCONNELL:  I regret that our efforts were simply not enough. 

A Senate Republican healthcare bill failed last July by a single vote. That left the party’s defining campaign promise unfulfilled.

But last year’s overhaul of the federal tax code was a big legislative win. And McConnell’s efforts in helping the Trump White House reshape the federal courts has made conservatives happy while angering Democrats.

And he’s not finished yet. After 11 years and five months on the job as a Senate GOP leader, he has at least six more months in his current role.

And joining me know to discuss McConnell’s record-setting tenure in the Senate is WORLD Radio Managing Editor J.C. Derrick. He spent five years covering the political scene in Washington, D.C., so he watched almost half of the McConnell reign up close.

And J.C., there’s a lot of debate in and around Washington about McConnell’s effectiveness as a Senate leader. And we’ll let people draw their own conclusions, but I’d like to explore the question of how effective he has or hasn’t been. So, first of all, let me ask you this, in very simple terms, what does a Senate majority leader do?

J.C. DERRICK, MANAGING EDITOR: Well, it’s important to note the U.S. Constitution doesn’t actually require political parties to designate a floor leader. The founders designed the lawmaking process to flow through committees and onto the floor for votes, with debate, amendments and so on. In other words a very open process. That’s what is often called regular order today.

But the parties established these leadership roles almost 100 years ago, and they continued to evolve throughout the 20th century. The Senate mostly runs on rules both parties have agreed on, and the way that is currently set up just gives a whole lot of power to the leaders. They act as the spokesmen for the parties, they’re dealmakers with the White House and the House of Representatives, and they decide what bills and nominations will come to the floor for a vote. If several senators want to be recognized to speak on the floor at the same time, the leaders go first.

So for a variety of both symbolic and substantive reasons, this is a very influential position—even though many Americans often aren’t very familiar with the person.

Yeah, and on that note, a poll last year found that one-in-three Americans actually had no opinion of McConnell. But 49 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view—making him the least-liked politician with a national profile. Just 19 percent saw him favorably. So how has he managed to hang on to power with numbers like that?

DERRICK: Well, I think there’s a couple of things going on here. First, he knows how to get re-elected. He took office in 19-85 and since then has funnelled a whole lot of federal money to Kentucky. That’s earned him a lot of allies, even from some people who might not like his politics as much. And purely by sticking around that long, McConnell puts himself in the leadership driver’s seat. Only three current senators have been in office longer than McConnell.

The other thing going on is that Mitch McConnell knows how to navigate Washington. To extend there is an establishment—what President Trump calls the swamp—McConnell is it. And he knows what will play well, what won’t, when to speak up, and when to keep quiet.

In his book Decision Points, former President George W. Bush recounts the story of how McConnell visited him a few weeks before the 2006 midterm elections. And he asked the president to withdraw troops from Iraq to help his party at the polls. Bush said no, but McConnell’s political nose was on point—Democrats took control of the House and Senate based largely on dissatisfaction with the lingering war.

Has McConnell been effective in helping Republicans win at the ballot box?

DERRICK: That’s difficult to answer. I would say yes and no, but on the whole, you’d have to say he’s won more than he’s lost—particularly when it comes to intra-party fights. Here’s Senator Lamar Alexander explaining some of that:

ALEXANDER: In 2010 and ‘12, the Senate Conservative Fund helped nominate Republican candidates in five states who lost the general election, when a more mainstream Republican candidate might have won. So in 2014 and ‘16, he organized an effort to defend incumbent Republican senators who were challenged in primaries. He was successful in every case, including his own primary. 

OK, so, J.C., will what Alexander just describe there make up a big part of McConnell’s legacy?

DERRICK: Yes, I think that’s a big part of it for sure. But I also think people will remember his ability to survive in the face of widespread opposition. I mean, one of his own members called him a liar on the Senate floor. His own fellow senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, has opposed him at will, and yet McConnell still managed to get an endorsement out of Paul when he ran in 2014.

In terms of the big issues that will mark McConnell’s tenure, I think you’d have to cite the 2011 Budget Control Act. That’s really been the only time in recent memory that both parties have agreed to a plan that would cut into the federal government’s massive budget deficit.

And then the other big thing is the Supreme Court vacancy in 2016. Both parties have opposed Supreme Court nominees before, but the degree to which McConnell formed a blockade of Judge Merrick Garland was pretty much unprecedented. Republicans refused to give him a hearing for almost a year. And whether you love or hate the move, it unquestionably tipped the balance of the Supreme Court. More than anything else, that will likely define Mitch McConnell’s legacy.

Okay, before we go—what’s next for McConnell?

DERRICK: Well, he’s 76 years old—so not exactly a spring chicken. But just in the last few days McConnell huddled with a few senior advisers to discuss his 2020 reelection bid. And he allowed it to leak to the press, so clearly he’s sending an early message to anyone who wants to run against him—either in Kentucky for his seat or in Washington for his leadership post. He’s not planning to leave anytime soon.

Okay, JC, thanks so much!

DERRICK: Sure, thank you.

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., with GOP leaders, tells reporters that Republicans talked about the Trump administration’s policy of separating families after illegal border crossings, and are rallying behind a plan that would allow detained families to stay together while expediting their deportation proceedings. during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2018. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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