It has been about six months since Kentucky senior Sen. Mitch McConnell was sworn in as majority leader of the U.S. Senate, a promotion that McConnell says comes with "a humbling experience almost every day."
"Someone described being the majority leader of the Senate as being a little bit like being the groundskeeper at a cemetery — everybody's under you but nobody's listening," McConnell recently joked.
While the Senate was out last week for the holiday recess, McConnell went on a victory lap of sorts in Kentucky, recalling the campaign promises he made last year and has kept this year and talking about hopes for more bipartisan agreement even as he warned that "big battles" lie ahead.
In his short time at the helm, McConnell has already won praise from former colleagues, editorial pages and even some Democrats. At the heart of that praise is the campaign promise that McConnell has worked to keep: Getting the U.S. Senate back to work.
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Fresh off a marquee victory, in which McConnell joined with President Barack Obama to pass fast-track trade authority against the wishes of traditional Democratic groups, the senator was able to point to a scorecard that demonstrates how differently the Senate has conducted its business compared to last year.
In 2014, there were 15 amendment votes allowed. So far this year, there have been more than 130. More than 40 bipartisan bills have passed, 18 have been signed into law by the president, and the Senate, for the first time in a long time, was able to pass a budget.
"Now look, that's not nearly enough, but I can tell you the era of dysfunction in the Senate is over," McConnell told Commerce Lexington last week. "There's a new majority with a different view about how to make progress for the country."
In an interview with the Herald-Leader, McConnell recalled that he "laid out in early 2014 how I would run the Senate differently if I had an opportunity to, and fortunately I did have the opportunity to."
"So we're open, we're running, meaning amending and honoring committee work and treating people with respect," McConnell said. "And it's pretty popular, not only on my side but on the Democratic side as well. And so it opens up avenues to actually do things."
To be sure, there have been stumbles as normal partisan bickering has been further complicated by the fact that four of McConnell's members are running for president, leading to high-profile fights on the Senate floor over immigration and national security.
And he has run up against the limitations that are inherent in divided government, noting that while his efforts to pass the Keystone Pipeline bill as his first order of business were successful but ultimately for naught as "in the end, the most important Democrat in the country didn't sign it."
On coal, a key factor in the senator's overwhelming re-election victory, McConnell has waged war against the EPA in hopes of reversing what the senator and so many Kentuckians believe is an administration-led war on coal.
But whatever relief has come has been from the courts, and despite his best efforts, McConnell is not optimistic that he can use spending bills to undo the EPA's efforts, saying that "all I can do is everything I can."
McConnell said Republicans have "lined the interior appropriations bill with every rider you can think of to push back against them."
"Honestly, the chances of getting that out of the Senate and down to (Obama) is pretty slim because they're blocking all the appropriation bills," McConnell said. "But I'm going to do everything I can to help. What we need is a new president because the regulators work for him. That's the best solution."
McConnell is still very much on a crusade against "Obamacare," telling the luncheon audience that "just because the Supreme Court has upheld it twice doesn't mean it's a good thing."
McConnell has been able to stick to his pledge that there would not be another shutdown of the federal government on his watch. But looking ahead, that pledge is sure to be tested, especially as Democrats have made clear they intend to use this year's appropriations bills to force negotiations on issues they care about, just as Republicans did when they were in the minority.
McConnell identifies the differences over the spending bills as Republicans wanting "to spend more on defense (and) our friends on the other side want to spend more on everything."
"I don't know how that's going to play out, but I do think we're going to have some big debates," McConnell said. "They're not going to lead to shutting down the government, but we're going to have big debates."
Beyond that, it is unclear what McConnell will be able to accomplish, citing enormous "philosophical" differences he has with the president.
In his speech to Commerce Lexington, McConnell noted that, in the past, divided government has been a time of big accomplishment, and he said he remains hopeful that Obama might join him on some kind of entitlement reform that would allow them to pass a "grand deal."
"If the president were to have an epiphany and do some really big stuff for the country, I'm ready to deal," the senator said. "I'm not going to give up yet on the chance that we might be able to do something really big at some point here before he leaves office."
Of course, McConnell's role as majority leader is also in jeopardy as the election map in 2016 is not nearly as favorable to Republicans as it was last year when they swept into power, and the senator acknowledged that next year will be a "challenging cycle."
The senator seemed particularly concerned about defending an open seat in Florida, where U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has decided to run for president instead of re-election.
Calling Rubio's decision a "big disappointment," McConnell lamented the enormous expense of defending the seat in a state where campaigns come with hefty price tags.
Still, McConnell said he is optimistic that the combination of strong incumbents and races in states that will be presidential battlegrounds, could extend his time at the top a bit beyond the next year-and-a-half.
Both in his remarks to the luncheon and in his interview with the Herald-Leader, it is clear that McConnell is relishing his new role, having realized a lifelong dream of leading the Senate and telling Commerce Lexington "honestly, I just love it."
"This is a position I wanted for a long time and felt that I could handle and it's really been a joyful experience, as odd as that sounds to some of you," he said with a laugh. "And I hope you all feel good about having a Kentuckian in a position like that."