Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is plotting an ambitious summer agenda aimed at demonstrating the Republican-led Congress can govern along with Democrats and the White House — but a major tax-code overhaul won’t be a part of the agenda this year.
In a wide-ranging interview with Morning Consult in his Capitol office, McConnell rattled off a list of bipartisan legislation Congress would try to tackle between now and the August recess, including a significant rewrite of No Child Left Behind, a cybersecurity bill and a measure to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act.
Senate Democrats last week said they would hold up a number of spending bills that stick to sequester-level funding caps, dampening GOP hopes of using policy riders to advance an aggressive conservative agenda. But McConnell, fuming at Democratic filibuster attempts, said there is still room for bipartisan action.
“I’d still like to try to focus on the things that are worth doing that we actually have some agreement on,” he said. McConnell cited Sen. Bob Corker’s (R-Tenn.) measure to require congressional input on any nuclear deal with Iran and legislation granting the White House trade promotion authority as recent examples of bipartisanship.
The NCLB rewrite, spearheaded by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and ranking Democrat Patty Murray (Wash.), passed out of committee on a unanimous vote. Cybersecurity legislation advanced with only one senator opposed. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved the toxic substances measure, sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and cosponsored by committee chairman David Vitter (R-La.), on a 15-5 vote.
McConnell refused to elaborate on the order in which legislation will advance. Many tech industry lobbyists hope to see cybersecurity legislation make it to the floor before August.
But McConnell slammed the door on the likelihood the Senate would come to an agreement on major comprehensive tax-reform legislation this year. Some lobbyists had hoped at least some rewrite of current tax codes could be included, perhaps in a must-pass measure to stock the Highway Trust Fund.
“We’re certainly not going to be able to be doing big, comprehensive tax reform with this president,” McConnell said. “The president is not interested in revenue neutrality, and he’s not interested in treating all taxpayers the same, so I don’t think we’ll get there on comprehensive.”
However, McConnell said, the highway bill could prove to be the legislative vehicle for a different hot-button item: reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. McConnell reiterated his commitment to Senate Democrats, who demanded a vote to reauthorize the bank before its June 30 expiration as part of the debate over trade promotion authority. McConnell opposes reauthorizing the bank but he said he wouldn’t stand in the way of a vote.
“The vehicle that I think is available to [bank supporters] that would give them the best chance of actually achieving what they want would be the highway bill that would come up at the end of July,” he said.
White House spokeswoman Jennifer Friedman said the administration still holds out hope of reaching a deal on tax reform.
“We are encouraged that Congress is considering options for reforming our business tax code and making significant investments in our nation’s transportation infrastructure,” Friedman said in an email. “We are hopeful that we can work with Congress to find common ground on these issues.”
The busy summer session McConnell has planned, replete with must-pass legislation to fund the federal government and reauthorize or extend key programs like the Highway Trust Fund, the Federal Aviation Administration and others, is likely to test his pledge to allow open debate from members on both sides.
It is a point of pride for McConnell that Democrats and Republicans have already voted on about 120 amendments to various measures this year, far more than the handful of amendment votes the Senate took in 2014. McConnell, sitting down just minutes after Democrats moved to block the National Defense Authorization Act on Thursday, mentioned several times that Republicans had allowed more amendment votes on this year’s NDAA — three — than Democrats had on the same bill during the last two years combined.
But, he acknowledged, there comes a point when the amendment process has to be shut down. McConnell has moved to cut off debate through the legislative procedure known as “filling the tree” twice already this year, once on a vote to keep the Department of Homeland Security open and once last week, on a measure to reform some surveillance provisions in the Patriot Act. It’s a tool he says he won’t use often.
“There are occasions when that is necessary because you don’t have enough time,” McConnell said of filling the tree. “But I tell you, the best way to sum up my approach to that is it should be the exception rather than the rule, and I think in the old days it was the other way around.”
McConnell’s carefully laid plans for an ambitious summer could be thrown into disarray, however, if the Supreme Court strikes down tax subsidies for states that did not create their own healthcare exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. Such a decision would send healthcare rates skyrocketing in the 33 states that operate through the federal marketplace. If the court rules against President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, McConnell said Congress would be ready to act.
“We’re certainly going to have a plan for our view of what needs to be done to protect the American people in the wake of this really terrible bill,” he said.