WASHINGTON — Sen. Mitch McConnell kicked off his new role as majority leader Wednesday by holding out hope for compromise with Democrats on some of the nation's toughest issues, such as shoring up Medicare and Social Security, while at the same time taking a jab at President Barack Obama.
McConnell said Obama was blocking the type of change voters sought in November with his threat to veto the first bill of the new, Republican-controlled Senate — a measure to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to carry Canadian oil into the U.S.
"Threatening to veto a jobs and infrastructure bill within minutes of a new Congress taking the oath of office — a bill with strong bipartisan support — is anything but productive," McConnell, R-Ky., said of the veto promise issued by the White House Tuesday as lawmakers were formally opening the 114th Congress.
Democrats responded by blaming Republicans for gridlocking the Senate when they were in the minority, continuing sour arguments that have been repeated for years.
Still, in his first major speech as majority leader, McConnell spoke optimistically of working with Obama and Democrats on issues such as trade agreements, infrastructure improvements and rewriting tax laws.
He even raised hope of compromise on bigger efforts that have bedeviled Congress for years, such as strengthening Medicare and Social Security, balancing the budget and whittling away the national debt.
"But bipartisan reform can only be achieved if President Obama is interested in it," McConnell said. "The president is the only one who can bring his party on board. He's the only one who can sign what Congress passes."
Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, responded by blaming Republicans for bottling up the Senate with filibusters and said Democrats wouldn't behave that way now that they are the minority party.
He also read a statement from the minority leader, Sen. Harry Reid, who is recovering at home from broken bones suffered in a bad fall last week.
The statement from Reid, D-Nev., blamed Republicans for "gratuitous obstruction and wanton filibustering" while Democrats were in charge.
Reid also warned that Democrats wouldn't acquiesce to attempts to undo Obama's health care law or protections for workers.
"I have no intention of just rolling over," his statement said. "I can't. Not when the middle class is teetering on the verge of extinction."