Mitch McConnell Says He Will 'Trust But Verify' His New Relationship With Obama

PHOTO: Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky holds a news conference in Louisville, Nov. 5, 2014.PlayJ. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
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Sen. Mitch McConnell said today he intends to employ a “trust but verify” relationship with President Obama when he takes the helm as the new Senate majority leader, saying voters sent a clear message that both parties must govern.

“The American people have spoken. They’ve given us divided government,” McConnell told reporters here on the day after Republicans captured control of the Senate and expanded their majority in the House. “When the American people chose divided government, I don’t think it means they don't want us to do anything. I think it means they want us to look for areas of agreement.”

It’s an open question how much agreement the Republican-controlled Congress and the White House will forge, given the high degree of partisan acrimony that has been festering in Washington. But at a post-election news conference, McConnell listed trade agreements and corporate tax reform as two potential early areas of compromise with the president. “Those are two very significant areas of potential agreement,” McConnell said.

A first order of business when Republicans assume their majority in January, McConnell said, is making the Senate function again.

"From an institutional point of view, the Senate needs to be fixed,” McConnell said. “The Senate in the last few years basically doesn’t do anything. We don’t even vote.”

Under his watch, he said there would be no government shutdowns or political brinksmanship over the prospect of defaulting on the national debt, even though he acknowledged that no leader has complete control of all senators. He pointed out that he received a congratulatory call from Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who has castigated members of his party for compromising too quickly with Democrats.

“He just called to congratulate me on my election and was impressed with the margin,” McConnell said, pausing as he chuckled at the podium. “And I was pretty happy about it myself. We had a good -– we had a good, friendly conversation.”

McConnell won with the largest margin of any of his Senate campaigns, delivering a 15-point triumph over his Democratic rival, Alison Lundergan Grimes. No one was targeted more aggressively by Democrats than McConnell, who was re-elected to his sixth term. As he prepares to assume the role of Senate majority leader, a position he has aspired to since his early years as an intern in the Senate, McConnell struck a pragmatic tone.

He said the full repeal of the Affordable Care Act was unrealistic, saying: “The veto pen is a pretty powerful tool.”

Republicans have a majority of at least 52 seats, which could expand to as many as 55 when the undecided races are called. McConnell said the new class of Republican senators were eager to come to Washington and accomplish something.

“The vast majority of them don’t feel that they were sent to Washington to just fight all the time,” McConnell said. “And as I’ve said repeatedly here, divided government is not the reason to do nothing. In fact, divided government frequently has been pretty productive.”