It was an odd but intriguing experience to sit at a press breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor last week and listen as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell strongly rebutted one of my recent columns, implicitly endorsed the message of another and sent a disquieting signal about the prospects that might follow a Republican victory in the midterm elections.
The opening question to the Kentucky senator from one of my colleagues asked about the criticisms of the Senate’s performance detailed in the latest issue of the New Yorker and summarized in my recent column. McConnell, admirably candid, made it clear he did not agree with any of it.
The Senate, far from failing the country, is “operating very much as the founders intended,” he said.
The procedural delays that kept the Senate preoccupied for 18 months on two big bills, health care and financial reform, and delayed a dozen others passed by the House until next year – or later – are nothing to lament, he said. The delays simply reflect the philosophical divisions in the country provoked by President Barack Obama’s ambitious agenda.
And the complaints about the decline of civility voiced by many of the senators interviewed by George Packer, the author of the New Yorker article, and echoed in my own experience, are not a cause for alarm. “I don’t think we have a collegiality problem,” McConnell said, citing his own warm feelings toward Majority Leader Harry Reid and retiring Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, another Democrat.
McConnell ascribed much of the distress both Packer and I had recorded to the natural impatience of new members. The Senate, he said, “takes a bit of getting used to.” But if they stick it out, these newcomers will learn to love the old rules, he said, and abandon their foolish impulse to change them.
To say that McConnell left me skeptical is no surprise, because I know that while he’s right about what is bothering many newcomers, frustration is also the force that is sending Evan Bayh of Indiana, a two-term, 12-year veteran and the son of a former senator, into early retirement.
Much as I differed with McConnell’s defense of the status-quo Senate, I have to agree with several of the other points he made at the breakfast.
He is right when he says that the Senate tends to be at its best when the party ratios are relatively close – say 55 to 45 – rather than as lopsided as they have been during Obama’s first two years. A more even split encourages dealing between the parties in the center of the political spectrum, and it may very well return if Republicans make the gains now widely forecast for November.
McConnell confirmed at the breakfast that one day earlier, he had had his first one-on-one private meeting with Obama at the White House. And he fleshed out what I had gathered from my own earlier visit to the White House and reported in another column – namely, an active interest now developing on the part of the president in reaching out to congressional Republicans for help on the 2011-’12 agenda.
McConnell said he could foresee alliances with Obama on trade issues, on development of nuclear power and electric vehicles and, most important, on disciplining the federal budget.
But then he threw a curve by endorsing the idea that the 14th Amendment guarantee of U.S. citizenship to every child born in this country, whatever the parentage, should be examined in congressional hearings. That is a radical change, freighted with emotional baggage, and if this is an example of what it would mean to have more Republicans on Capitol Hill, watch out.