U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the most consequential decision of his political career was to block former President Barack Obama’s final U.S. Supreme Court nominee from confirmation. That move paved the way for President Donald Trump to nominate conservative judge Neil Gorsuch to the high court.
Now McConnell and the Senate are set to act on a second Trump nominee to the court, despite calls from Democrats to put the confirmation hearings on hold until after the midterm elections.
“There’s no rational basis for not moving forward with this nomination, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” he says.
The senior senator from Kentucky joined KET’s Renee Shaw for a wide-ranging conversation about his accomplishments as majority leader as well as the Supreme Court, the new farm bill, the Trump presidency, immigration policy, and state politics. The interview was recorded in early July.
Supreme Court Confirmation
The majority leader blocked President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the U. S. Supreme Court following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016. McConnell said then that the American people should have a say in the nomination through their votes for president in the election that fall.
Democrats now argue the Senate should wait to confirm President Trump’s newest Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, since this is a year when Americans are electing senators who will vote on that confirmation. McConnell dismisses that argument, saying the key difference is 2018 is not a presidential election year.
Critics of the president also contend the Kavanaugh nomination should be delayed until investigations into the 2016 presidential election are complete. They say it’s a potential conflict of interest for Trump to name someone to a court that could hear a case involving those investigations.
“That’s laughable,” McConnell counters. “The president doesn’t loose any authority based upon allegations… The Constitution doesn’t say, ‘oh, there’s a time-out here, you don’t get to be president if somebody’s accusing you of something.’”
McConnell says he hopes to begin confirmation hearings with Kavanaugh later this month and have a vote on his nomination by late September. The senator says Kavanaugh is a jurist with an outstanding resume, legal mind, and judicial temperament, so the confirmation debate shouldn’t be about the nominee’s views on abortion or health care, or other specific issues.
“Once they’re on the court, they have a very strong obligation to follow the law, if it’s clear,” McConnell says, “and if it’s not clear, to respect the precedents.”
The short list of judges to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired at the end of June, included Amul Thapar, who McConnell recommended to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky in 2007. The Indian-American jurist has since gone on to sit on the federal appeals court for the sixth circuit. Trump ultimately chose other judges as finalists for Kennedy’s seat.
“I think Judge Thapar has all of the credentials I’d like to see in a Supreme Court Justice,” McConnell says. “If he doesn’t get this seat, maybe he’ll get one some day.”
Accomplishments as Majority Leader
McConnell’s impact is being felt beyond the Supreme Court. Under his leadership the Senate has confirmed dozens of federal judges nominated by President Trump.
“We’re transforming the judiciary with the kind of people who believe the job of a judge is to interpret the laws as written or as the Constitution dictates, rather than trying to get an outcome you want,” says the senator.
McConnell became majority leader in 2015 and is only the second Kentuckian to hold the job (Democrat Alben W. Barkley was the first, serving in the 1930s and ’40s). McConnell says that enables a relatively small state like Kentucky to “punch above our weight” against California, Texas, and other much larger states when it comes to important issues before Congress.
The majority leader cites the new federal farm bill as a prime example of how he has used his leverage to benefit the commonwealth. He worked to include a provision in the Senate version of the legislation to legalize industrial hemp, which could become a new cash crop for the state’s farmers.
“We don’t know whether it will ever be as big as tobacco was, but we hope so,” McConnell says.
The House version of the farm bill does not include the hemp provision. The two chambers also differ on work requirements for those receiving food stamps. McConnell says he hopes senators and representatives can resolve their differences on those issues and pass the farm bill by the end of September.
Other accomplishments McConnell touts include the Republican tax cuts, a five-year highway bill, rollbacks of Obama era regulations, and multiple bills to fight the opioid epidemic – all of which he contends have helped Kentuckians. The senator has already announced his reelection bid for 2020, and even as his personal popularity has dipped in public polls, he says the state’s voters realize the advantages of keeping him in office.
“It benefits Kentucky on almost a weekly basis,” says McConnell. “I think I can make a strong case to the people of this state that you wouldn’t want to give that up any sooner than you have to.”
But one topic remains elusive to McConnell and others on Capitol Hill.
“There’s no issue that we’ve had more challenge related to than immigration,” the majority leader says.
Since Congress has failed at passing comprehensive immigration reform, McConnell thinks they should try smaller, more targeted bills to address funding for a border wall in areas where a barrier would be the most helpful and the reunification of migrant families. The senator says it’s “unacceptable” for children to be separated from their parents at the border. He also wants to make the immigration system more merit-based and improve the guest-worker program for those who want to work here but don’t seek to become citizens.
“We are a country of immigrants, for the most part,” he says. “Having a legal immigration system that works is important.”
McConnell also defends the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and calls the proposal by some Democrats to abolish the agency an “absurd suggestion.”
When asked to grade President Trump’s performance, McConnell says he thinks the chief executive is doing “very well” on policy.
“Most of what President Trump is doing is very comforting to what would be considered mainstream Republicans, things like judges and regulatory changes and tax reform,” the senator says. “But there are other areas where I think he is to some degree at variance with most Republicans.”
For example, the president’s trade policies: McConnell says tariffs on imported goods could help certain American industries, but on the whole he fears they will hurt Kentucky’s bourbon distillers and auto manufacturers.
“I’m not a fan of tariffs,” says the senator. “Nobody wins a trade war, and if we’re going to have a war I hope it’s a short one.”
On other international issues McConnell says a denuclearized Korean peninsula should be the goal of talks with North Korea, and anything short of that would not be a good outcome. He says he would advise President Trump not to become so focused on getting a deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that he loses site of the specific details of an agreement.
As for the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, McConnell says special counsel Robert Mueller should be allowed to finish his work.
The senator declined to comment, though, on the president’s use of social media. He says civility in Washington could be improved, but that it’s far better than the verbal attacks that Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton once leveled at each other. Even with heightened political tensions today, he says the country faced far tougher challenges in the 1960s and following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“I wish we would act more civilly toward each other, and hopefully that is a phase we’ll work our way out of, but the country is going to be fine,” McConnell says. “There’s a lot that protects America and allows us to work our way through these challenging periods.”
The senator praised the accomplishments of Gov. Matt Bevin and the Republican leadership in the General Assembly. He says their passage of legislation regarding right to work, the prevailing wage, and charter schools has made Kentucky more business friendly. When lawmakers turned to tougher issues like pension and tax reform, McConnell says it was inevitable that the debates would become more heated.
“I’m not going to critique rhetoric either of… the governor or anyone else,” McConnell says, “but I think the record of the governor and the record of the General Assembly is one they should be proud to run on in the next election.”