McConnell Is Senate's New Top Republican

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is the new GOP minority leader. Melissa Block talks with McConnell about how his party will adjust to being the minority party. McConnell says that because the Senate's margin is only 51-49, the Republicans can still wield power in shaping legislation.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is now the number two Republican in the Senate majority. Come January, he'll be the number one Republican in the minority. Senator McConnell has noted that only 17 of the current 55 Republican Senators have served in the minority. He has. McConnell says he learned lessons from those days. Senator McConnell joins us from Capitol Hill. Thanks for being with us.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Well I think it was important to remember that the minority in the Senate is almost never irrelevant, particularly a robust minority of 49. The Senate was constructed by our founding fathers, and then the subsequent evolution of the filibuster rule has turned the Senate into an institution that really can only operate on a bipartisan basis. It takes 60 votes - not 51 - to do virtually everything in the Senate. Neither side has had 60 in the two decades that I've been in the Senate. So in order to accomplish something for America, we have to be able to put together deals that make sense. Otherwise, the minority party's in a position with a mere 41 votes to prevent passage of almost anything. The majority leader's job is much tougher. He has got to get 60.

BLOCK: Well, let me ask you about a few things that the Democrats would like to get through in Congress. One is to raise the minimum wage. Do you think the Republican caucus will support that?

Sen. MCCONNELL: We tried to get the minimum wage increased just a couple of months ago. It was coupled with some other things, like getting relief on the death tax, which has been an onerous thing for family farmers and small businesses for a long time. We'd be open to increasing the minimum wage. It does need to be packaged with something else that would provide at least some relief for the small businesses who will be laying off a lot of youngsters as a result of the increase. But listen, we're open for business. We're open to raising the minimum wage. It'll need to be in a package that's attractive to both sides.

BLOCK: Will you decouple it from the estate tax then?

Sen. MCCONNELL: Probably.

BLOCK: I'd like to ask you about judicial nominees. The president has just re-nominated six candidates who were previously blocked for the federal appeals court. Democratic Senator Charles Schumer calls that a real slap in the face; says they're not going to get confirmed. Is this, do you think, the wrong message for the president to be sending, to put these same nominees who've been blocked before back before the Senate?

Sen. MCCONNELL: I think it's important for the Democrats to remember who the president is, and the president, under the Constitution, does get the right to nominate judges. We think they ought to be given fair consideration and an up or down vote.

Fortunately, most of them have been given fair consideration and an up or down vote. We're proud of the fact that some of the judges that the other side tried to make controversial last Congress were confirmed. So I think most of the president's judges will be given fair consideration by the Democratic majority. I certainly hope so, and I'm optimistic that that will be the case.

BLOCK: Why shouldn't, though, the president also take a lesson from the message of last week's elections and say if bipartisanship is what we're looking for, maybe I need to rethink the people I'm sending up there?

Sen. MCCONNELL: I think that last week's election was about Iraq, and it seems to me the president is already reacting to the vote of the American people. He's decided to go in a different direction with a new secretary of defense. He is apparently going to embrace many, if not all, of the recommendations of the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton Commission on the way forward in Iraq, which should be out in a few weeks. I think the message of last week was quite clearly about Iraq.

BLOCK: So you don't see it also as a repudiation of Republican leadership then?

Sen. MCCONNELL: I don't. I don't think the country went far left. The balance in the Senate is quite close. The American people really view the two parties in rough parody these days, so I don't think either side had a blow out. It's going to require bipartisan cooperation to advance the agenda of the American people, and I hope we'll see that.

BLOCK: Sen. McConnell, thanks very much.

Sen. MCCONNELL: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's the incoming minority leader of the U.S. Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

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