After one-on-one with Obama, McConnell vows to slow White House agenda

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010; 3:57 PM

Fresh off his first one-on-one meeting with President Obama, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) gave a spirited defense Thursday of the importance of the filibuster and -- amid expectations of swelling GOP ranks -- vowed to be a more forceful brake on Obama's agenda after November elections.

Speaking at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, McConnell defended the Senate as an institution and rejected calls from junior Democrats to overhaul the chamber's rules. He said Republicans were able to try to essentially grind the Senate to a halt to block the Democratic legislative agenda.

McConnell pointed to a few areas of potential bipartisan work in 2011, suggesting three Central and South American trade deals could be completed and noting that Obama and Republicans have called for more funding for nuclear power plants.

Of Obama, he said, "I'm hoping he'll become a born-again moderate."

McConnell singled out a recently published New Yorker Magazine piece by George Packer -- titled "Empty Chamber", it attributed much of the chamber's current problems to the GOP -- and Thursday's op-ed column by The Washington Post's David Broder, which hailed the Packer piece for "tracing the forces that have brought the Senate to its low estate."

"I don't see, David, the same Senate that this New Yorker author sees," McConnell said, glaring at Broder, who sat across the table from him. "Some of my best friends are Democrats, Chris Dodd, Harry Reid. I don't think we have a collegiality problem. What we are in the middle of is a great debate about the future of the country."

To reinforce the point that collegiality remains in the Senate, McConnell pledged to not campaign in Nevada against Reid, the majority leader, who is facing a tough election. That's in line with Reid's treatment of McConnell in 2008, when the GOP leader won a narrow reelection, but it stands in contrast to then-Majority Leader Bill Frist's decision to stump for Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) in his upset 2004 victory over then-Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle.

McConnell's first-ever one-on-one meeting with Obama took place in the Oval Office and was initiated by the White House. McConnell declined to discuss the specifics of the meeting, but people familiar with it said it was generally cordial and at one point was broken up by a call from Malia Obama wishing her father a happy 49th birthday.

McConnell suggested that the Oval Office huddle was an effort by Obama to reestablish a relationship with his former Senate colleague because the November midterms are shaping up as a "midcourse correction" that will deliver Republicans a much stronger hand than their current conference of a barely filibuster-proof minority of 41 senators.

"The president's a very smart guy, and I think he figures he'll be seeing a lot more of me in the future, and I enjoyed our discussion and I'm looking forward to seeing a lot more of him," the 26-year veteran of the Senate said.

(See a video here of McConnell at the breakfast.)

The White House has described the meeting as part of its normal outreach efforts.

McConnell laid claim to the mantle of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) as the protector of the Senate's long-standing rules and precedents.

A group of freshman Democrats, led by Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), are shaping up an effort that would overhaul the chamber's rules. Some are eyeing an elimination of the 60-vote threshold for thwarting filibusters. Smaller rules tweaks are also under consideration, such as ending secret "holds," the procedure that allows any senator to slow legislation or nominations.

McConnell scoffed at the ideas and said senators like Udall and Warner would change their tune once they experience life in the minority.

"The Senate takes a bit of getting used to, and it was not constructed, as all of you know, to be efficient," said McConnell, who has spent almost exactly 13 years in the majority and 13 in the minority.

McConnell agreed with the sentiment of retiring Sen. Dodd (D-Conn.), who has counseled the young Democrats to retain the filibuster. According to McConnell and Dodd, the current 59-41 split created an environment in which Democrats focus their efforts on securing just one or two Republican votes, but if Republicans pick up four or more seats in November, the Senate would produce more cross-aisle legislation.

"If you're between 55 and 45, you get genuine bipartisan agreements," McConnell said, "and what I hope we're going to have -- it will be up to the American people -- but what I hope we're going to have after November is more balance, more balance. Which will give us opportunities to do things together."

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