WASHINGTON — In his first speech on the Senate floor as majority leader, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell expressed optimism for the future of the country and Congress despite a "moment of great anxiety as a nation."
"The people we represent have lost faith in their government," McConnell said. "They no longer trust Washington to do the right thing."
The crowds in the gallery and on the floor of the U.S. Senate who watched Tuesday's swearing-in ceremony were long gone when McConnell entered the chamber Wednesday morning.
With only a handful of Senate staff and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., looking on, McConnell began his remarks by proclaiming that with Republicans now in control of the upper chamber, he looked at "this new beginning with optimism and a profound sense of purpose."
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"Next to serving the people of Kentucky, this is the greatest of honors," McConnell said. "I recognize the serious expectations of the American people. I know they're counting on us."
Harking back to the midterm elections, McConnell said voters had sent a clear message that "they want the administration to change course and move to the middle."
"The American people have had enough," he said. "And this November, they had their say. The message they sent was clear. If voters hit the brakes four years ago, this time they spun the wheel."
Just how much room exists for bipartisan agreement seemed to be immediately in question, however, as President Barack Obama welcomed the new Congress on Tuesday with a veto threat over legislation that would approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline — a proposal that McConnell had said since his re-election would be the first item on the agenda.
Still, McConnell called for a functioning Congress moving forward, even as he warned that "bipartisan reform can only be achieved if President Obama is interested in it."
"And I assure you, threatening to veto a jobs and infrastructure bill within minutes of a new Congress taking the oath of office — a bill with strong bipartisan support — is anything but productive," he said.
Calling on both parties to begin working in a constructive manner while repeating his promise to restore regular order to the Senate, McConnell said voters "want a Washington that's more interested in modernizing and streamlining government than adding more layers to it."
"And they want more jobs, more opportunity for the middle class and more flexibility in a complex age with complex demands," he said. "That's why we plan to pursue common-sense jobs ideas, including those with bipartisan support. Things like reforming a broken tax system to make it simpler and friendlier to job creation, opening more markets to American-made products so we can create jobs at home."
McConnell said data were showing "a glimmer of hope" for the economy, an uptick that "appears to coincide with the biggest political change of the Obama administration's long tenure in Washington."
Democratic National Committee spokesman Mo Elleithee scoffed at McConnell's assertion that having a Republican-led Congress was helping the economy already.
"The fact is, under President Obama we've had 57 straight months of private-sector job growth leading to nearly 11 million jobs added," Elleithee said in a statement. "All Republicans have given us is a government shutdown that cost the economy $24 billion. I get why he wants to take credit for the economic recovery. But maybe he should first do something to help contribute to it."
A student of history, McConnell pointed to Kentucky political legends — Henry Clay, John Sherman Cooper and Alben Barkley — who had served in the Senate before him as examples of lawmakers who put the country's needs before those of themselves or their parties.
"Each of these senators — each of these Kentuckians — came from a different political party," he said. "Each viewed the world through a different ideological lens. But all of them believed in the Senate. And all of them left behind important lessons for today."
With his ascension to majority leader, McConnell became the first Kentuckian to hold the position since Barkley in 1947.
Moving forward, the senator maintained that he was hopeful the new Republican Congress would answer the call that voters made in November.
"Americans are challenging this Congress and this president to work for them," McConnell said. "They're challenging lawmakers in Washington to work for jobs for Americans, not just jobs for themselves."