By Eric Pianin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Sounding a conciliatory note, the new Senate Republican leader vowed yesterday to work with Democrats to pass a minimum-wage increase and a strong ethics reform package shortly after the new Democratic-controlled Congress begins work next year.
Senate Minority Leader-elect Mitch McConnell (Ky.) described as "easy stuff" much of the Democrats' opening agenda, including a proposal to boost the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour and a congressional ethics package that would ban gifts, meals and travel from lobbyists, as well as impose new controls on the budget deficit. These issues, however, have not proved to be easy before.
McConnell said he is urging bolder action. He challenged House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader-elect Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to push for a long-term solution to financing the Social Security system and for a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration laws. Democrats in the current Congress blocked President Bush's proposal to partially privatize Social Security, while an impasse between House and Senate Republicans over approaches to immigration changes thwarted a deal.
"One thing I hope we can do, now that we have the election out of the way, is see if we can quit kicking the can down the road on a number of significant issues," McConnell told a meeting of Washington Post editors and reporters. "Left over from last year, I would put immigration at the top of the list. But I also share the view . . . that this would be the perfect time to tackle Social Security."
While some fear that the new Congress will become a political battleground in the run-up to the 2008 presidential campaign -- with at least eight Democratic and Republican senators considering bids for the White House -- McConnell asserted that a grand deal on Social Security is still possible, even with a Democratic-controlled House and Senate and a Republican White House. He noted that divided government did not prevent President Ronald Reagan and a Democratic Congress in 1983 from striking a landmark deal ensuring the long-term solvency of Social Security.
McConnell said the two parties should be open to a wide range of approaches -- "I don't think we should rule anything in or out."
In recent days, Bush and senior administration officials have revived talk of reaching an accord on an overhaul of Social Security that would maintain the program's solvency beyond the baby boom generation's retirement. In an interview with The Washington Post last week, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., the president's point man on Social Security, promised that the White House will enter talks with Democrats with "no preconditions." That is a significant shift for Bush, who had previously said that any Social Security legislation would have to include private accounts that would allow workers to divert some of their payroll taxes to investments in stocks or bonds.
McConnell added another concession yesterday, saying that Social Security legislation should "solve the problem as far into the future as possible" -- a standard that is far more flexible than Bush's insistence on nothing short of a "permanent" fix.
McConnell, 64, will succeed Sen. Bill Frist (Tenn.) as the Senate Republican leader in January, when Frist steps down to explore a possible bid for the GOP presidential nomination.
The Kentucky lawmaker, like Reid, is a consummate dealmaker whose top priority is legislative achievement. They both rose through the Senate ranks by mastering the rules and building strong relationships with colleagues. Both are combative lawyer-politicians who overcame childhood challenges and are now in their mid-60s. Unlike Frist, a surgeon, McConnell and Reid are veteran practitioners of the Senate's opaque, clubby brand of politics, with no apparent desire to become president or grab television time to espouse their parties' goals.
Yesterday, McConnell said he and Reid "have a good relationship" and talk practically every day that the Senate is in session. He said that he and the new majority leader are determined to avoid legislative gridlock in the coming Congress.
In a wide-ranging session, McConnell said that although a majority of voters voiced their discontent with the administration's Iraq war policies, he doubts the Democrats can muster support for a resolution setting a timetable for a withdrawal of U.S. troops. He said that Republicans would back a boost in the minimum wage, but that it would have to be linked to a GOP priority, such as a tax cut for small businesses to ease the impact.
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.