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McConnell Faces Challenges From GOP Conservatives, Obama's Veto Pen


A bit more than a year ago, President Obama was being criticized once again for his cool relations with Congress. And at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, he joked about it.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnell, they ask. Really?


OBAMA: Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?

INSKEEP: These days, that drink with Mitch McConnell does not seem like such a bad idea after all. After his party won a majority, the Senate Republican leader will likely be at the center of whatever happens next. As majority leader, he is expected to take a job with many opportunities and dangers. NPR's Ailsa Chang reports.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Less than 24 hours after becoming the presumptive Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell wanted to make something very clear to his fellow Republicans. He can't promise them the world.


SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, I mean the veto pen is pretty big thing (laughter).

CHANG: McConnell has spent much of the past six years openly delighting in blocking key parts of President Obama's agenda. But in his first post-election press conference in Louisville, Kentucky, it was McConnell reminding everyone the president could block him.


MCCONNELL: The Democrat who counts is the president of the United States. Democrats in Congress will support whatever he agrees to do.

CHANG: McConnell has a complex balancing act on his hands in the next two years. To retain control of the Senate in 2016, Republicans will have to prove they can get something done, and that means shifting their tone with the president so many of them campaigned against. Obama made his own overtures yesterday.


OBAMA: I would enjoy having some Kentucky bourbon with Mitch McConnell.

CHANG: Possible areas of agreement over that bourbon - tax reform and trade. But beyond that sliver, it was clear where warfare would still exist.


MCCONNELL: We're going to pass legislation; some of it he may not like, but we're going to function.

CHANG: McConnell's already conceded repealing the Affordable Care Act would be hopeless with Obama in the White House. But he said there will be ways to chip away at it, like repealing the medical device tax or individual mandate. Hunter Bates is McConnell's former chief of staff.

HUNTER BATES: I think what you will see is Republicans putting forth their priorities on a whole host of issues that the president may ultimately veto, but it will at least allow the country to see a contrast between what Republicans believe and what President Obama believes.

CHANG: But here's the thing, it takes 60 votes to get any legislation through the Senate. Republicans will have a smaller majority than the Democrats did, and some Republicans aren't exactly jumping up and down to promise their loyalties to McConnell. On Election Day, CNN checked in with Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.


WOLF BLITZER: Will you support Mitch McConnell as your leader in the United States Senate?

SENATOR TED CRUZ: Well, that will be a decision for the conference to make, and that will be decided next week.

CHANG: Cruz has said he'd like to see the Senate pursue every means possible to repeal Obamacare, even though McConnell's said there's no point. McConnell smiled when asked if he was worried some members of his conference might challenge his leadership.


MCCONNELL: I'm serving a body with bunch of class presidents. They're all ambitious, so they wouldn't be where they are. A lot of folks with sharp elbows and big egos and - look, I am not troubled by ambition.

CHANG: And that will mean considering the ambition of the more moderate Republicans, too. A handful of them will be up for re-election in 2016 in states Obama either won once or twice. These Republicans could feel pressured to move to the center and compromise with Democrats. If McConnell wants to hold on to the Senate majority, he may have to let that happen.

JOHN TREITZ: I think he wants to be someone that has a legacy similar to Henry Clay's.

CHANG: John Treitz, a lawyer in Louisville, has known McConnell for more than 40 years. And he says his friend is a deep admirer of the legendary Kentucky senator who helped forge difficult compromises before the Civil War. Treitz says what people most underestimate about McConnell is his ability to find consensus.

TREITZ: You're going to see him taking a position where he actually does reach out to the other side - attempts to do that because he is a student of governance.

CHANG: And govern will be what McConnell must try to do. The man who once wanted to make Obama a one-term president must now avoid becoming a one-term majority leader. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, Louisville, Kentucky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.