I do see in McConnell a workhorse, an extraordinarily bright man and master politician who knows the Senate and its rules thoroughly, and who has managed quite remarkably to keep his Republican colleagues in the Senate united. And I will give him the benefit of the doubt, that he wants to return the Senate to the regular order, with longer work weeks, open amendments, and real debates. But we also know what McConnell himself has said to the major-league GOP donors whose opinions matter more than anyone else: that he will work at every turn to thwart the Obama agenda, and use appropriations and the budget process to force the president to roll back key elements of Obamacare, to water down Dodd-Frank, to tilt toward coal (and more oil drilling and natural-gas fracking), to move forward on the Keystone XL pipeline, and to stop Environmental Protection Agency action on climate change.
With the exception of a reconciliation package that can be done with 51 votes in the Senate, everything else will take 60 votes to overcome filibusters (I am assuming that McConnell, burning with indignation at the Harry Reid-led Senate, will not degrade it further by his own filibuster nuclear option). Perhaps there will be a few cases—say, a single-shot repeal of the medical-device tax, a bill to force approval of Keystone—where he can find a bipartisan majority and maybe avoid a filibuster, only to end up with a veto.
Budget reconciliation—used by George W. Bush and congressional Republicans for his tax cuts, among other controversial policies, and by President Obama and Democrats for the Affordable Care Act—is a potentially powerful weapon that can encompass substantive policy changes under a budget rubric. But even getting 51 votes for something that will satisfy a majority of House Republicans, which will itself be quite hard-edged and radical, will not be easy. It will take winning over Susan Collins and a slew of Republican senators up in 2016, including many in blue states. Among them: Kelly Ayotte, Pat Toomey, Dan Coats, Lisa Murkowski, Roy Blunt, and Mark Kirk.
Perhaps McConnell can prevail—after all, he managed to get Olympia Snowe and John McCain, the key players in campaign finance reform, to vote to kill the Disclose Act in the aftermath of Citizens United. But Obama would surely veto a bill that eviscerated his main presidential accomplishments, and a showdown would result in a government shutdown. That is not exactly a winning strategy for Mitch.
What about avoiding Democratic filibusters on bills by opening up the process to amendments? Here, brutal reality will intrude. A Republican Senate will have either 51, 52, or—if it really breaks the GOP way—53 Republicans. But three to five of those—Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and perhaps John Thune and Rob Portman—will be running for president. That means they will be AWOL more often than not from the Senate, leaving McConnell more often than not with fewer Republicans than Democrats in the Senate. And that means jeopardy for votes on amendments.