WASHINGTON—Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., promised Thursday to work closely with Democrats to pass a new lobbying-reform bill and to raise the minimum wage for the first time in more than 10 years.
Evoking the legacy of 19th-century Kentucky lawmaker Henry Clay, known as the "Great Compromiser" for his ability to strike grand deals between political opponents in the decades leading up to the Civil War, McConnell called on both parties in the Senate to "find bold solutions to big problems" during the remaining two years of President Bush's administration.
"The Senate can accomplish great things over the next two years," McConnell said during a speech at the opening of the 110th Congress. "But this opportunity will surely slip from our grasp if we do not commit ourselves to a restoration of civility and common purpose."
The call for cooperation came as the Democrats took control of Congress for the first time in 12 years. It followed a closed-door meeting earlier at which senators met privately to air grievances over the sharply divided politics that marked the first two years of Bush's second term.
Afterward, new Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., promised a new beginning, with lawmakers working together "in an open fashion to solve the problems of the American people." McConnell said it was important for Congress to "raise the crossbar and do important things for the next generation."
Promises to work together in a bipartisan manner were on the lips of virtually every lawmaker on Capitol Hill on Thursday. They were a frank acknowledgement that Congress is split almost evenly between the two major parties and is doomed to gridlock unless lawmakers can find common ground.
Democrats have promised quick action in the next three weeks, saying they'll vote to approve ethics reform, the recommendations of the 9-11 commission, a higher minimum wage, stem cell research, negotiated prices on seniors' prescription drugs, an end to subsidies for the oil industry, investments in renewable energy and lower interest rates on student loans.
But a potentially bitter debate looms over all the promises of reform, with Democrats generally pushing for Bush to start bringing troops home from Iraq and Republicans split over whether the U.S. commitment should be scaled back or even increased.
Speaking later by telephone, McConnell said it would be "difficult for Congress to micromanage tactics" in the war unless it voted to cut off funding, a move he conceded was highly unlikely.
In his floor speech, McConnell said he hoped that the coming debate over Iraq would center on what's best for the country and Iraq and "not what's best for the Republican Party or the Democratic Party."
Even as he expressed a desire to find common purpose with Democrats, McConnell indicated that he'd press Republican agenda items including Social Security and immigration revisions.
During the conference call, McConnell said senators from both parties agreed that the tone of debate in the Senate had become too strident in recent years.
"Divided government ... has frequently been the best kind of government to tackle major issues," McConnell said. "Now is the time to get a comprehensive immigration reform bill and a comprehensive long-term solution to Social Security."
Earlier on the Senate floor, McConnell said he'd fight attempts by Democrats to end the Bush administration's warrantless domestic-spying program and any attempts to roll back Medicare prescription-drug benefits.
"We cannot scrap this program, as some would like," he said.
McConnell also said Republicans expected Democrats to approve Bush's choices for federal judges. Saying that "judicial activism" had divided the country, courts and Congress for too long, McConnell said the Senate should approve the same number of judicial appointees for Bush as it had approved for the three administrations before him.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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