2020 Elections

Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, looms over the Democratic debates

Key Points
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., becomes a major topic during the Democratic debates when the 2020 presidential candidates are asked how they would deal with the Republican leader.
  • The candidates answer with a mix of responses, including removing the filibuster and rallying the support of the working class.
  • McConnell, who has become an obstacle for the Democratic Party, has blocked Supreme Court nominations and stalled major bills from the Democratic-led House.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
Joshua Roberts | Reuters

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., became a looming presence at the Democratic debates Wednesday and Thursday evenings when the 2020 presidential candidates were asked how they would deal with the Republican leader.

The candidates answered with a mix of ideas, including removing the filibuster and rallying the support of the working class. Their diverse responses appeared to show little unity in the Democratic Party about how best to minimize the power of one of its biggest adversaries.

McConnell has become an obstacle for the Democrats, blocking Supreme Court nominations and stalling major bills from the Democratic-led House. In the most recent congressional skirmish, McConnell staunchly opposed the House's proposed changes to a $4.6 billion bill that would provide humanitarian aid at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a front-runner in the polls, insisted that she has a plan to deal with McConnell by harnessing "the will of the people" if the Democrats don't win a Senate majority.

"Sure, I want to see us get a Democratic majority in the Senate," Warren said. "But short of [that], you better understand the fight still goes on. It starts in the White House, and it means that everybody we energize in 2020 stays on the front lines come January 2021. We have to push from the outside, have leadership from the inside, and make this Congress reflect the will of the people."

But former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland said he would take a less aggressive approach and try to work with McConnell, saying he has the ability to unite both sides of the aisle.

"I think we need to get things done. That's why I believe we need to operate in a bipartisan manner," Delaney said. "Listen, I will sign into law bills that come to the White House that are passed on a party-line basis, absolutely. But all the big transformative things we've ever done in this country's history have happened when huge majorities of the American people get behind them."

Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ., responded in a similar fashion, saying he has effectively passed bipartisan legislation throughout his career.

Former Vice President Joe Biden said he was able to gain McConnell's support on the $800 billion Recovery Act and that he got McConnell to raise taxes $600 billion. But Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., argued that McConnell complied because the decision largely benefited the tea party.

Bennet said the only way to deal with McConnell was to get him out of office: "Gridlock will not magically disappear as long as Mitch McConnell is there."

Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio insisted that the Democratic Party would have to lean on the working class to boot out McConnell.

"If you want to go into Kentucky and take his rear end out, and if you want to take [Republican Sen.] Lindsey Graham out, you've got to have a blue-collar party that can go into the textile communities in South Carolina," he said.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said he would start by "taking away the filibuster from Mitch McConnell," which requires a supermajority of 60 or more votes to pass legislation. Warren has also expressed support for getting rid of the filibuster, while Booker and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said they oppose its removal.

On Thursday evening, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York presented herself as the Democratic Party's best option when it comes to confronting McConnell, saying that she has the negotiating skills and passion to hold the Republican leader accountable.

"When we beat President [Donald] Trump and Mitch McConnell walks into the Oval Office, God forbid, to do negotiations, who do you want when that door closes to be sitting behind that desk, to fight for women's rights?" she said.

The spotlight on McConnell during the debates caught his attention. At a press conference on Thursday morning, McConnell said he was pleased at the number of times — 12 — he was mentioned during Wednesday's debate. The tally was five at Thursday's debate.

"I dominated the debate last night," McConnell said. "And here was their complaint: They said all he's doing is stopping what the House is sending over and confirming conservative judges. I plead guilty," he said with a smile.

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