Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will be on different networks Sunday, but both will offer the same basic message – they need to work together for the good of the country and the success of President-elect Barack Obama.
But despite the similar message, Reid and McConnell face radically different challenges – Reid needs to shore up his support back home, where stubbornly high negative approval ratings have threatened his bid for a fifth term in the Senate, while McConnell needs to begin restoring confidence to a Senate Republican Caucus that has been battered during the last two election cycles.
McConnell, as the most important Republican in Washington this year, will be under especially intense scrutiny in the opening days of the 111th Congress. While he will have at least 41 GOP votes in the next Congress, McConnell is facing pressure from his own party to unite his fellow Republicans in opposition to Obama and the Democrats without looking needlessly obstructionist.
“The only person with more at stake than McConnell in 2009 is Barack Obama,” acknowledged a top Senate GOP staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
McConnell appears Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” Reid appears Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are tentatively expected to meet with Obama on Monday to begin reviewing details of a planned $700-billion-plus economic stimulus package, with McConnell and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) joining them later in the session, according to Democratic and GOP insiders.
The Obama transition team and Democratic leaders had hoped to complete work on the yet-to-be unveiled economic package by the time Obama is sworn in on Jan. 20, but Democratic and GOP officials indicated that that target date is probably too optimistic, with a finish date of late January or early February more likely.
“We agree with President-elect Obama that taking action to turn the economy around is job one,” McConnell said in a statement on Friday. “We also agree, though, that every dollar needs to be spent wisely and not wasted in the rush to get it spent. And we believe that his admonition to ‘go through the federal budget—page by page, line by line—eliminating those programs we don’t need, and insisting that those we do operate in a sensible cost-effective way’ should apply to this, potentially the largest spending bill ever considered by the Congress.”
Yet Obama’s strong poll ratings and the strong public backing for federal intervention to stem the fiscal crisis could convince GOP moderates and/or Senate Republicans up for re-election next year to cut their own separate deals with the Democrats, regardless of what GOP leaders want. Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden have already targeted the Maine Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, calling the senators and dispatching transition officials to meet with them.
McConnell’s response to these conflicting demands, so far, has been to play for time. He has preached patience, talked up bipartisan cooperation, and stressed the need for thorough congressional review of how any stimulus funds will be spent. He wants to be “wise, not wasteful,” a mantra he repeated during his re-election campaign this fall.
In the words of one advisor, McConnell “doesn’t want to get the bum rush,” meaning he will not act as a doormat for Obama and the Democratic leadership on the stimulus or any other legislative intiative.
“We want to be constructive, not obstructive,” said a top Senate GOP aide. “But we will defend our positions to the fullest extent possible.”
Republicans will also repeatedly emphasize the fact that Obama and the Democrats, with control of the White House and big majorities in Congress, are now in command of Washington: They will need to lead the country in a new direction, and the credit or blame for doing so should fall on them as they will no longer able to blame President Bush or the Republicans.
So McConnell’s plan is this: Republicans will look to cut deals with Obama and the Democrats, yet offer “viable alternatives” whenever possible, alternatives that comply with the party’s principles of reining in government spending and power, even in the face of the greatest economic crisis for the United States in 70 years. McConnell and other GOP leaders believe this approach will help lead the party of out the wilderness in which it has found itself during the last two election cycles.
This strategy was on full display during the auto bailout discussions last month. McConnell and the Republicans, still feeling the political fallout from the $700 billion Wall Street rescue package -- a vote that they believe hurt them in the November elections -- refused to countenance another rescue package, despite Democratic and union threats to make them pay for their reticence come 2010. Bush eventually ordered the Treasury Department to loan $14 billion to GM and Chrysler, but Senate Republicans felt that they had stood by their principles and refused to cave into Democratic demands.
McConnell intends to carry this message into a GOP-only retreat at the Library of Congress on Wednesday, which will be followed by a press conference.
McConnell has already laid down his requirements on how the economic stimulus package should be considered. He wants a full round of committee hearings, and he will insist on the GOP’s right to offer amendments to scale back or modify the package.
"Surely the Democrat leadership in Congress doesn't plan to spend a trillion dollars of taxpayer money -- nearly $10,000 in new debt for everyone who pays federal income tax, charged to the credit card for our children to pay -- without safeguards, without appropriate hearings to scrutinize how tax dollars are being spent," McConnell said in a statement last week, using a dollar figure for the stimulus bill that has already been rejected by the Obama team.
Senate Republicans will also be on the lookout for signs of “revenge” by Democrats, meaning any attempts by Reid and the Democrats to push through legislation or policy initiatives bottled up by Bush over the last two years.
McConnell also faces potentially sensitive negotiations with Reid over seating the winner of the Norm Coleman-Al Franken race and over committee ratios for the next Congress, always a delicate topic between the two Senate leaders. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) has threatened to filibuster any attempt to seat Franken before legal challenges in the Minnesota race are resolved.