WASHINGTON — When he became majority leader, propelled by sweeping Republican victories last year, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky vowed to run a more productive and traditional Senate than his Democratic predecessor, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.
In some ways, that has come to pass. Democrats have been given greater opportunity to amend bills than Republicans had when Reid had a majority. McConnell promised there would be no government shutdown, and he averted one over funding the Department of Homeland Security. And, occasionally, senators now have to work on Fridays.
But when it comes to the central role of a Senate leader — getting things done — McConnell has been impeded by internal struggles in his party and the hostility that awaits him across the aisle.
The latest mess — a stalled sex-trafficking bill and McConnell’s related refusal to bring a confirmation vote for President Barack Obama’s attorney general nominee — follows the rancorous struggle over a bill to fund homeland security that Republicans tried to use to undo Obama’s immigration policy.
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A promise to let committees do their work was momentarily reversed when McConnell said he would speed bills concerning sanctions against Iran to the floor instead of waiting for the Foreign Relations Committee. Then he backed off, inciting anger and confusion.
Republicans say that McConnell is doing his best to change the glacial ways of the Senate, and point out that bipartisan bills, including one on cybersecurity, will soon come to the floor.“The corrosion of the Senate took place over many years,” McConnell said in an email. “So restoring the institution to allow members of both parties and their constituents to have a voice in the legislative process will take longer than three months. But we’re making progress.”
Many of the troubles stem from McConnell’s poisonous relationship with Reid, born of their many fights on policy and procedure. The two trade barbs on the Senate floor and beyond almost daily, and have dug in deeply on the trafficking bill, which had been relatively noncontroversial.
Instead of seasoned senators guiding policy, the two often seem more like aging uncles fighting at the family dinner table over who put too much garlic in the potatoes while the rest of the guests sit sullenly waiting to eat.
“Leaders have to have a relationship,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. “They have to be able to communicate. I haven’t seen that between Harry and Mitch, and we have seen the outcome of that and it’s not working.”
The battle of wills may foreshadow new nastiness over the coming months as Congress turns to writing a budget, fixing the Medicare payment formula for doctors and shoring up the nation’s highway system. The emerging bipartisan House solution to the Medicare payment system is already being quietly opposed by Reid.
Unlike Speaker John A. Boehner’s power in the House, which had seemingly been limited to thwarting Obama’s agenda while Democrats controlled the Senate, McConnell’s newly won status came with a charge to alter his party’s image from obstructionists to policy architects in service to its candidate for the White House.
Outside of the Senate, some conservatives lament that they have yet to see evidence of new ideas surfacing in legislation. “You don’t look at this majority and say that is a Congress full of bold and interesting ideas,’” said William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. “It would be nice to have a party that is not just tactically smart in the halls of Congress but could help frame a national message. And I don’t think that is McConnell’s strength.”
At the same time, McConnell was expected to be better at working out bipartisan legislation than Boehner or Reid. For instance, he quietly helped put together a deal in 2010 to extend the Bush-era tax cuts and end a budget stalemate that hobbled government for months.
But Reid has now mirrored McConnell’s own tactics when he was minority leader, holding together his troops and filibustering most bills that come to the floor.“I think it’s pretty obvious the rules of the Senate can impede things from happening,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Reid is also discouraging the amendment process, as he did when he was in the majority. “Harry Reid hasn’t changed, that’s for sure,” said John Cornyn, R-Texas. “He led his caucus over the cliff and lost nine Senate seats, and what’s to me the most amazing thing is they apparently didn’t learn any lessons from that experience.”
Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid, disagreed. “Even in the majority their instincts are still to obstruct, pick unnecessary fights and reflexively oppose anything President Obama supports,” he said.
Yet for McConnell, some errors seem unforced. Republicans added an abortion restriction to an otherwise bipartisan sex-trafficking bill, making it untenable for Democrats. Although there is controversy over whether Democrats knew about the language all along, Republicans would not take it out.
“It’s a bad idea to put poison pills in your own bills,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. “I think it’s more stumbling on their side than strategy on ours.”
While Democrats look to have bumbled, admitting they missed the abortion language when they read the bill, Republicans opened themselves to criticism over the decision to hold up the nomination of Loretta E. Lynch, who would be the first black female attorney general.
On Thursday, the Senate had a third failed vote on the bill. Members of both parties, including Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. — both moderates with a longstanding interest in the sex-trafficking problem — labored to come to a compromise, but the Senate seemed far from a solution.
On Lynch, McConnell finds himself constrained — most Republicans have said they would not vote to confirm her no matter when her nomination comes to the floor, making it likely that Vice President Joe Biden will have to cast a tiebreaking vote. That is not precisely the image of a new and functioning Congress.
“When you have a shift, it takes a while to get moving,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R- Tenn. “We’ve had our obstacles.”