WASHINGTON — As his party struggles to regain its footing after devastating election losses, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged Friday that the Republican Party will rally and work in a bipartisan manner with President Barack Obama's administration.
"If someone told you Mitch McConnell was down at the National Press Club hoping for the spirit of bipartisanship, they'd tell you that's like an insurance agent hoping for an earthquake," the Kentucky Republican told a gathering of journalists at the National Press Club.
His address was the first major policy speech by a Republican leader since Obama took office and McConnell's first appearance at the Press Club since 1997, when he staked his position opposing campaign finance reform.
Though Democrats took the White House and expanded their congressional majorities in the November elections, they fell short of the 60 votes needed in the Senate to overcome filibusters.
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As the most powerful Republican in Washington, McConnell and his GOP colleagues will continue to play a pivotal role in influencing the legislative plans of the Obama administration and the Democratic-led Congress. McConnell vowed to leverage this power with the new administration but to temper his actions with an eye toward bipartisan cooperation.
"For the first time in a while, America has a president who isn't viewed by most people as an overly polarizing figure," McConnell said. "Americans are intrigued by President Obama's promise of post-partisanship."
McConnell, who joined fellow Republican and Democratic congressional leaders in a meeting Friday with Obama at the White House, said he would work to meet a deadline of getting an $825 billion economic stimulus package to the president by mid-February.
McConnell also acknowledged that in order to resolve the nation's economic crisis, lawmakers must move past "protecting narrow interests." Decisions can no longer be based on political calculations, he said.
He acknowledged that his new mantra of bipartisanship may sound strange to those familiar with his tenure as the Senate's ranking Republican.
In Washington political circles, McConnell is seen as a shrewd tactician who has used the filibuster to effectively block legislation he opposes. Last year, during heated negotiations over a Democrat-backed global warming measure, McConnell brought proceedings to a standstill after calling for all 492 pages of the bill to be read aloud.
"McConnell is the kind of politician who pokes and prods until he finds a weak spot," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Still, bipartisanship should not be interpreted as caving to Democratic whims, McConnell said.
He stridently disagrees with Obama's plans to close the Guantánamo Bay and CIA prisons, has pledged to fight an expansion of entitlement spending and will buck a push by labor groups to require employers to recognize a union as soon as a majority of employees sign cards declaring their intent to unionize. Republicans also expect to be "a full partner" in health care reform, he said.
"President Obama's campaign reminded many in Washington, including many Republicans, of the aspirations that the American people have about their government," McConnell said. "People want their leaders to work together to solve problems, not to set traps. The challenge now is for both parties to cooperate, not just in word but in deed."