2016 proved to be a very good year for Mitch McConnell.
Kentucky’s senior U.S. senator got to keep his job as Senate majority leader when Republicans retained control of that chamber in the November elections. Then Republican Donald Trump shocked many poll watchers by winning the presidency. And back home, the GOP, with McConnell’s guidance, gained a majority in the state House of Representatives for the first time in nearly a century.
Now Republicans control the legislative and executive branches of both the state and federal governments, putting them in position to advance policy initiatives that have long been stymied by Democrats. Although McConnell is ready for the challenge of helping to lead the country in a new direction, he also remains a political pragmatist.
“It’s certainly no time for hubris, because all majorities are never permanent,” the senator says.
McConnell appeared on KET’s One to One to discuss the November elections, his achievements as Senate majority leader, and his views on the incoming Trump administration.
McConnell attributes a portion of the Republican successes this year to a resurgence of rural and white working-class individuals who traditionally voted for Democrats.
“I think a lot of people felt they were no longer a part of the Democratic Party’s view of what was important in America,” McConnell says.
The senator says those voters don’t like the direction of the country, believe the administration of President Barack Obama didn’t care about their concerns, and resent political correctness. McConnell contends the Republican wave has been building throughout the Obama presidency as a result of key legislation passed in the first two years of the Democrat’s administration, including the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
“Six years later there are more elected Republicans at all levels of government – local, state, and federal – than there have been in America in a hundred years,” the senator says.
Ironically, McConnell says, the nation’s disenchanted voters found a champion for their concerns in a Manhattan billionaire with no political experience. Although he says he thought Donald Trump didn’t have “a chance of winning,” McConnell praises the real estate mogul for seizing an Electoral College victory by winning the traditionally Democratic, working-class states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
The senator says he’s eager to see how President-elect Trump and the Republican majorities in Frankfort and Washington can move the state and nation forward.
“Obviously I wasn’t very happy with the last eight years, but we’re going to go in a different direction and hopefully the American people will like that,” McConnell says.
Investigating Election Hacks
One shadow hanging over the Trump victory is allegations that Russian interests hacked the election process by releasing damaging information about the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The president-elect argues that the Russians weren’t involved in the cyber-espionage, but McConnell sees the issue differently.
“It’s no question the Russians were messing around in our election,” the senator says. “It’s a matter of genuine concern and it needs to be investigated.”
That can happen in the existing Senate and House intelligence committees, says McConnell. He opposes appointing a select committee to investigate the hacks as some lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York), have requested.
McConnell says this isn’t new behavior for the Russians, who he says have a history of interfering with European elections and generally trying to discredit democratic governments. He contends whatever hacking did occur here didn’t affect the outcome of the presidential election.
“If they were trying to elect Donald Trump, my guess is they made a bad investment,” says McConnell.
Sizing Up the Trump Cabinet
The Senate majority leader says the president-elect’s cabinet appointments will prove troublesome to Russian interests. McConnell specifically cites Trump’s selection of Gen. James Mattis for secretary of defense, Congressman Mike Pompeo to head the C.I.A., and ExxonMobil President and CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state.
Those opposing the Tillerson nomination point to his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. McConnell says being an energy executive requires working with foreign leaders of sometimes unpopular governments. He says Tillerson was only representing the best interests of his company when he negotiated oil and gas deals with Russians. McConnell says he’s sure Tillerson will represent the best interests of America when he becomes secretary of state.
Another cabinet appointment that McConnell praises is the selection of his wife, Elaine Chao, to be the new secretary of transportation. He says Chao started her public service career in the Reagan administration as chair of the Federal Maritime Commission, and then became deputy secretary of transportation under President George H.W. Bush. McConnell says Chao hoped to be transportation secretary under President George W. Bush, but was instead tapped to lead the Department of Labor.
The senator says his wife is excited to lead the Department of Transportation now, given growing interest in new technologies like drones and driverless cars, and because President-elect Trump has proposed a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan that could keep Chao and other transportation officials very busy.
The Future for Coal
Reflecting on his first two years as majority leader, McConnell says he’s proud of restoring “regular order” to the Senate and dramatically increasing the number of roll call votes conducted in the chamber compared to his Democratic predecessor, Sen. Harry Reid of Utah. McConnell says he’s also pleased with significant bipartisan legislation that passed under his leadership, including a new highway bill, an update of No Child Left Behind, and the 21st Century Cures Act, which will dramatically increase funding for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease research as well as for opioid addiction treatment. McConnell says that bill “will be remembered as the single most important piece of legislation of the 114th Congress.”
Just before the holiday break, McConnell pushed through a temporary extension of health benefits for retired union coal miners. Those pension funds have dwindled due to coal company bankruptcies and new technology that requires fewer miners to extract coal. The health care coverage for union retirees was set to run out at the end of this month, but McConnell says funding for those benefits has been secured through April. That’s when he expects Congress to approve a permanent fix to the pension funding problem for miners.
McConnell has been highly critical of the Obama administration’s policies regulating mining and coal-burning power plants. He says he has great hopes President-elect Trump will fulfill his campaign promises to reduce the regulatory burden on the coal industry.
“I’m hoping that the Clean Power Plan regulations both directed at existing plants and new plants will be phased out and we’ll have a more sane approach at EPA,” says the senator.
But McConnell acknowledges that even those changes may not be enough to bring coal jobs back to Kentucky.
“Probably not all of them, but we’ll find out,” McConnell says.