What to Expect From Mitch McConnell's Senate

The incoming majority leader has pledged a more open legislative process, but don't expect a reversal of Harry Reid's rule change for nominees.

Caption:WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to reporters following the weekly policy lunch of the Republican caucus November 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. McConnell spoke on continued problems with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act during his remarks. (National Journal)

BATON ROUGE, La.—Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell won reelection on Tuesday night and with it, a new title: majority leader.

McConnell will lead a new Senate majority in January, reversing a number of practices that have defined the Senate under Majority Leader Harry Reid and providing a path forward for Republican legislation that has stalled in the House. With races still undecided in Virginia and Alaska and a runoff in Louisiana scheduled for Dec. 6, Republicans could gain a 55-seat majority—the same number of seats Democrats currently hold.

"I think that it's a big deal that will help correct the direction we're headed as a country. So I'm very upbeat about that. I think that's great," Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana said of the new majority at GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy's election night watch party in Baton Rouge Tuesday night.

McConnell offered a preview of the new Republican Senate back in January, lamenting a chamber gone amuck while speaking on the chamber floor. At the time, McConnell promised that under a Republican majority, bills would go through a bipartisan committee process before coming to the floor, a "free and open amendment process" would be restored, and senators—heaven forfend—would once again work on Fridays.

"The committee process must be restored. The people we represent must be allowed to have a say through an open amendment process. And finally, we have to learn how to put in a decent week's work on the floor again, because another thing we've lost around here is an appreciation for the power of the clock to force consensus," McConnell declared.

"Both sides will have to work to get us back to where we should be," he concluded. "It won't happen overnight. We're all out of practice. But it's a goal that I truly believe we can all agree on and agree to strive toward together. Because restoring this institution is the only way we'll ever solve the challenges we face. That's the lesson of history and experience. And we would all be wise to heed it."

Reid certainly seemed to agree in a statement congratulating McConnell as his successor on Tuesday night. "The message from voters is clear: they want us to work together," he said.

Of course, a lot can change between now and January, when McConnell will have the chance to follow through on his promises.

"I would think there are a lot of Democrats too who would be encouraged by an approach like that because it allows them to continue to have a seat at the table, because for committees to function properly there's a lot of bipartisan effort that has to go into it," former McConnell Chief of Staff Billy Piper said.

Reinstating an open amendment process would be a major reversal of the way Reid has run the Senate. As majority leader, Reid has been loath to allow Republican amendments to make it to the floor, often filling amendment slots with superficial measures to prevent Republicans from adding their own.

The move has not been popular with Republican members, many of whom have attempted to block votes from coming up for consideration in retaliation.

"I think Republicans have had about eight amendment votes in as many months. That's ridiculous," Vitter said. "That's tearing the best traditions of the Senate to shreds. So I do hope we get back to the positive traditions of the Senate—full debate, full amendment process, open process."

But an open amendment process also means more tough votes for a new majority. Reid has used the amendment tree to protect his members; Republicans will have no such luxury.

There is one unpopular Reid rule that McConnell appears unlikely to change: the Democratic majority's invocation of the nuclear option. McConnell spokesman Mike Brumas would not comment on such a change, saying that McConnell would have to discuss the rule change with his conference. But former staffers said that any alteration to the rule that McConnell has railed against (which changed the 60-vote threshold required to approve of executive branch nominees to merely a simple majority) is unlikely. Such a change would hinder the new Republican majority's power.

That will be of particular import early next year, when the Senate is expected to take up President Obama's nomination to succeed outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder. Simply put: The nuclear option that Reid put in place could be used against him if Republicans decide to stall the next AG—or if Republicans win the White House in 2016.

All of these operational changes, former Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said in an interview, are designed not only to pass legislation, but to show the public that the Senate can work.

"He's going to want to show that Republicans can govern," Kyl said of McConnell. "But there's a cautionary note here, of course: It takes two to tango. All the legislature can do is pass bills to the president. He's got to decide if he's going to veto them or not. So I hope people don't get the idea that just taking the Senate equals the Republicans now running the government. I think they're going to do their best to find things that will get the president's approval."¦ But the question will be if the president will accept the legislation that they pass to him."

Under their new two-chamber majority, Senate Republicans believe that they can get enough Democratic votes to send approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, a repeal of the Affordable Care Act's medical-device tax, free-trade agreements, and a number of House-passed jobs bills that have languished in the Senate this Congress to the president's desk in 2015. Many would also like to see a repeal of the health care law's risk corridors and an overhaul of the tax system added to that list, but the chances of earning enough Democratic votes on either proposition are lower.

Republicans in January will face the harsh reality that in order to win the majority, they had to take down some of their most willing partners on the other side of the aisle. Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Kay Hagan, D-N.C., who occasionally ally themselves with the GOP and supported the Keystone pipeline in particular, both lost reelection on Tuesday night. And Sens. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Landrieu were still in danger late Tuesday night.

Piper dismissed those losses. "First, those Democrats can thank Harry Reid's strategy for their current predicament and that's their problem," he said, noting that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and other GOP allies will return to Congress next year.

The question then becomes whether Obama will veto any of those bills. But Republicans are confident that passage with even minor Democratic support will put pressure on the White House to allow those measures to become law. Obama has after all only vetoed two bills since taking office, Republicans say.

The biggest concern for Democrats going into 2015 is the specter of a reconciliation bill—a process by which a simple majority can pass a after a limited debate. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin indicated earlier this year that Republicans would pursue a reconciliation strategy and many Senate observers believe that the upper chamber will bring one to the floor.

Reconciliation bills, which are generally formed by the Budget Committee and can only be used once per year, are intended to be limited to budgetary issues, but have been used much more expansively in the past. And although they are still subject to a presidential veto, that has Democrats worried.

"I can assure you that the Speaker and Sen. McConnell's staff [are] already working to try to figure out what they can do via the reconciliation process versus what they can do via the regular process on a whole host of things. So they're going to fight for as broad and expansive set of reconciliation instructions as they can," said Jim Manley, a former Reid spokesman who worked for the leader for more than 20 years. "They're going to try to jam everything they can in there."

But the Republican majority will have "a narrow window next year to get things done" before the presidential primary season starts, Manley said. McConnell will have to contend with fellow Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Marco Rubio of Florida—all of whom are considering running for president in 2016. That kind of race to the right could cost the GOP some votes on bipartisan legislations and put McConnell in a difficult position, Manley said.

"My bottom line is I'm skeptical that much of anything can get done next year," he said.

There is one thing that current and former Senate leadership staffers for both parties agree on: The chances of a government shutdown this year are extremely low. Although there are voices within the Senate Republican Conference that have called for the chamber to pass a short-term continuing resolution in December, setting up a major fiscal fight early next year after their party has taken the majority, McConnell and most of his members are not expected to join in that push.

It is very likely, Senate observers say, that the chamber will pass an omnibus spending bill before the December deadline, leaving the new majority to wait until next fall to make changes to the federal budget.

"To me, it would make the most sense to, in whatever manner, get the 2015 bills completed as soon as possible—through whatever manner, a yearlong CR, individual bills, whatever it is. Because there's going to be plenty of work for the next Congress to take care of that's regular-order kind of business than having to go backwards and take care of unfinished business from the Reid Congress," Piper said.

McConnell spokesman Brumas said that the conference would discuss the length of any spending measure when members return to Washington next week.

Both sides expect a quick and easy lame-duck session, during which Reid is expected to push through a number of executive- and judicial-branch nominations.

But the first real fight of the new Congress could come quickly on its heels. The debt ceiling is set to expire early next spring—though receipts from the 2015 tax season could push back that deadline to as late as June or July. And after House Republicans held back on a fight in 2014, thanks to the urging of Speaker John Boehner, observers expect a contentious slog over raising the nation's debt limit next year.

"I've got five bucks that says they lead us over the cliff," Manley said. "We managed to escape last year relatively unscathed."¦ But Cruz "¦ he's going to make it very difficult, absolutely."

Republicans would not comment on what specific concessions they would seek in exchange for voting to increase the debt ceiling, but argued that the president will have to engage with them on the issue if he expects them to vote yea. "I don't think we're able to get this done unless the president is a willing participant and doing it in a way that can pass the Congress," Piper said. "That's the great unknown is what the president's posture going to be after [the election]."

The next major cliff could come in September, when Congress will likely have to pass another funding bill to keep the government's doors open.

McConnell is expected to push strongly for a return to the regular appropriations process, whereby the House and Senate Appropriations committees pass 12 separate budget bills and then agree upon the details in conference—something Congress has not done since 1994.

"I know he wants the appropriations process to work," Kyl said of McConnell, a former appropriator himself. "So I think you'll see him do what John Boehner did, which was to take a lot of the power out of the leader's hands, put it back in the committee's hands."

That process can begin immediately when Republicans take power in January, with all 12 bills due to the president's desk by Sept. 30, 2015.

With Republicans in charge of both chambers, Democrats are concerned about what some of those bills may entail. Though the last few years have lacked very many—and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers has ensured that—with a two-chamber majority, Republicans could be emboldened to make more drastic changes.

"They're going to try to attach one unacceptable rider after another to all the appropriations bills, setting up a possible showdown over a number of those bills next year," Manley said. "I'm really pessimistic."

But, Piper argued, Republicans are well aware of the limitations to their power and Obama's waiting veto pen. "The Republicans I don't think have any illusions that they're going to be able to run roughshod. They understand how the three branches of government work," he said.