Politics & Government

Mitch McConnell takes the helm of U.S. Senate, promises 'totally different' chamber

Vice President Joe Biden, right, administers the Senate oath to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. during a ceremonial re-enactment swearing-in ceremony, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington. McConnell's wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao is at center. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Vice President Joe Biden, right, administers the Senate oath to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. during a ceremonial re-enactment swearing-in ceremony, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington. McConnell's wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao is at center. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) AP

WASHINGTON — Despite reaching his lifelong goal of becoming majority leader of the U.S. Senate Tuesday, Mitch McConnell was not focused on celebrating.

Having been sworn in for his sixth term by Vice President Joe Biden shortly after noon, McConnell warned during an afternoon interview in his Capitol office that "the day of becoming majority leader is not the day for irrational exuberance."

"The question here is what can you do with it. And that starts (Wednesday)," he told the Herald-Leader. "None of us are given these positions just for bragging rights or for legacy points. The question is what can you do with it."

McConnell, who was selected majority leader by his Republican peers after last year's midterm elections, becomes the first Kentuckian to lead the Senate since former Vice President Alben Barkley in 1947.

Early Tuesday, a U.S. Capitol employee changed the sign affixed to the door of McConnell's Capitol office, replacing "Republican Leader" with "Majority Leader" as the senator officially began his new job, replacing Harry Reid, D-Nev., who now becomes minority leader.

Not generally known for outward displays of emotion, McConnell was clearly in a good mood Tuesday after Republicans took control of the upper chamber for the first time since 2006.

At the top of his list of priorities, McConnell said repeatedly, was "repair the institution" of the Senate.

"One thing I know for sure is today's a lot easier than the coming days, and it is harder to be the leader of the majority than the leader of the minority," McConnell said. "I've been in both spots and observed people in both positions. But I do think there's an interest in actually accomplishing things."

In the days and weeks following his landslide win over Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, McConnell repeatedly said that one of his top goals would be to find areas where he and President Barack Obama can find agreement.

But the difficulty of ending years of Washington gridlock was on full display Tuesday as the White House announced Tuesday morning that Obama would veto any legislation that approves the Keystone XL pipeline, which McConnell chose as the first initiative of the new Senate.

"This is no surprise that he didn't want to approve this very important construction project," McConnell said. "So I'm not shocked by it, nor am I intimidated by it. We intend to put it on his desk."

McConnell said Obama's opposition to the pipeline puts the president "at variance with I believe every single Republican senator and, I believe, a significant number of Democratic senators on this issue."

"But we're not going to let his threats to veto things determine what we do," McConnell said. "He's not going to set our agenda. We're going to set our agenda. If he chooses to support some of the things we're doing, that's great. If he doesn't, hopefully the American people will understand the difference."

Despite the veto threat and a procedural move by Senate Democrats to slow the legislation, McConnell said he was hopeful he could corral the 67 votes necessary to override a veto.

"We're going to try," he said. "We're going to put it on his desk, and we'll try."

While the opening-day skirmish might hint at troubles to come, the senator did not back away from his pledge to look for areas of agreement with Obama.

"Our agenda will not be dictated by him, but I say that not in hostility," McConnell said. "I'm hoping there's some areas we can agree on, but he won't be setting the agenda for the Senate."

After pledging repeatedly during the campaign to use his power to curtail EPA regulations that Republicans and many Kentuckians blame for the decline of coal jobs, McConnell has said since the election that reigning in the agency is a top priority.

But McConnell said he did not broach the issue with Obama when they met at the White House before the holidays, saying that at his suggestion, the two men didn't dwell on the countless areas where they disagree.

"But I think he knows how I feel about it," McConnell said. "I know how he feels about it. I'm pretty confident he's going to make it very difficult to reign in EPA. But you never know."

The reason for McConnell's cautious optimism is a combination of Congress's power of the purse and successful efforts Republicans made to gut some of the Dodd-Frank banking reforms in the government funding bill that passed just before Christmas.

"They had previously said 'We're not touching it, we're not changing anything,'" McConnell said.

On the other side of Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning, Speaker of the House John Boehner survived a challenge to his position from angry conservatives who were able to gather a surprising number of votes against Boehner even though the speaker won handily.

The saga was a reminder of recent battles in the U.S. House of Representatives since the Tea Party election of 2010, battles many Democrats warned throughout the year that McConnell would face in the Senate with firebrand members such as U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah.

When asked if he saw reason to be concerned about the day's drama in the House, McConnell said, "I think we're going to be pretty unified over here."

When asked if Cruz and Lee weakened their position by making a move at the end of the last session that inadvertently resulted in a number of Obama appointees being confirmed, McConnell said that "there's no question that as a result of a few of our members, a lot of people were confirmed who wouldn't have been."

"But look, it's a new year and a new majority, and I'm optimistic that we're going to have most everybody heading in the same direction on most of the issues that we care about," the senator said.

Still, he acknowledged that part of his new gig will be to "manage expectations" about how much Republicans can accomplish as long as a Democrat is president.

"I think there are people who think everything changed because we changed the Senate," he said. "The president is still the president, and he's certainly demonstrated since the election that he's not buying into a whole lot of change."

As for his own ascension, McConnell twice demurred when asked to describe how it felt to finally be in possession of his dream job.

"This is not a 'measure the drapes' kind of moment," he said. "Am I happy and proud to be in this position? Yes. Did I want this job? Absolutely. But the question really is what can be done with it. Because this is not about me. This is about the country."

He added: "I think a better time to assess my work will be after we've done it for a while and whether or not we actually can repair the institution and take the country in a different direction."

But Kentuckians who desire elected officials with prominence "should be feeling good right now," McConnell said with a laugh.

"I think Kentuckians are proud of having people in national leadership positions, and right now they've got two," McConnell said, noting that Sen. Rand Paul is openly considering a bid for the White House in 2016.

"I'm in an important position for the country, and Rand is apparently pursuing the most important job in the country," McConnell said with a chuckle.