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When Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell interned in the Senate 50 years ago, he watched his Republican boss work with a Democratic president. The issue was civil rights.
Now that he has his dream job as Senate majority leader, he's doing the same thing. The issue now is trade.
In some ways, McConnell's work alongside President Barack Obama is more surprising than his old boss Sen. John Sherman Cooper's cooperation with President Lyndon B. Johnson. The two parties weren't nearly as polarized then as today.
And now their unlikely partnership faces a stern test. In an initial vote Tuesday, Democrats who fear expanded trade hurts workers and the environment held together to block Senate consideration of the "trade promotion authority" Obama needs to conclude a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. After weeks of backstage lobbying and vote-counting, they have to resume negotiations over ways to bring reluctant members of Obama's party along without alienating McConnell's Republicans.
"The Obama years are coming to an end," McConnell said during an interview in his Capitol hideaway office. "So now the action is on the Democratic side. And you are seeing that on trade. You've got the energy of the Elizabeth Warren faction kind of driving the agenda, pulling Hillary Clinton further to the left.
Read More10 questions for Mitch McConnell
"This is a six-year bill," he added. "So what I've said to my members, if we want the next Republican president, who we hope will be sworn in less than two years from now, to have a chance to do trade agreements with the rest of the world, this bill is about that president as well as this one."
He's up against Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, and perhaps more significantly, Sen. Warren. He said the first-term Democrat from Massachusetts is driving the Democratic economic agenda to the point that Hillary Clinton, the prospective 2016 presidential nominee, is "dodging" the trade issue altogether.
"She's a very effective spokesman for a very far-left position," he said of Warren. "She and her allies have doubled down to try to beat this trade agreement. They are allies with the current Democratic leader, and the next Democratic leader. It's an interesting challenge for us."
"I want to compliment the president on the way he took on the base, took on Elizabeth Warren, took on the labor unions," he said. "The biggest divisions these days are not among Republicans but among Democrats."
He calls Obama "the most left-wing president since Woodrow Wilson," and said that's why they've been so at odds for so long over health care, economic stimulus and other issues. But he said the media has twisted the meaning of his vow to try and make Obama "a one-term president," explaining that he was always willing to work cooperatively on common priorities such as resolving the "fiscal cliff" and now trade.
And despite Tuesday's setback, McConnell insists "I'm optimistic" about his ability to help Obama ultimately overcome Warren's objections on trade.
"We're going to find out here," he said. "Yeah, I think we can."