NEWS

Can a 'bourbon summit' make Mitch McConnell and Obama friends?

11/07/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 01/06/2015 05:59 EST
At the 2013 White House correspondents dinner, President Barack Obama poked fun at criticism that he's not engaged enough with leaders on Capitol Hill, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

"Some folks still don't think I spend enough time with Congress. ‘Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?' they ask. Really? Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?" the president joked, earning one of the night's biggest cheers.

McConnell, the longtime senator from Kentucky, is now poised to become Senate majority leader after Republicans gained control of the Senate in Tuesday's midterm election — and Obama might get to have that drink with him after all.

The president was asked about his 2013 quip at his post-election news conference Wednesday and responded, "Actually, I would enjoy having some Kentucky bourbon with Mitch McConnell."

"Bourbon summit" quickly appeared on Twitter. Obama has invited McConnell and other Congressional leaders over to the White House on Friday for lunch. No word yet on whether bourbon will be served.

Joking aside, Obama went on to say that he thinks he can have a "productive relationship" with McConnell.

Really? A productive relationship with the man who famously said in 2010 that his party's top priority should be to ensure Obama only had one term? The White House better stock up on its bourbon supply.

Mitch McConnell, at 72 years of age, will soon be getting his dream job. Once confirmed as Senate majority leader – there is no doubt his party will back him for the job — it will mark the end of a long journey that began decades ago.

Majority leader a dream job

McConnell was first elected to the Senate in 1984 but he worked in politics long before that. As a young man he was on Capitol Hill as an intern — in the Senate — in the 1960s. He went to law school and worked in the legal field for a few years but politics was a louder calling than law.

He's always been all about the Senate. Former aides have said that while most politicians dream of becoming president, McConnell's ambition was always solely focused on becoming Senate majority leader.

Having spent his political career in and around the Senate, McConnell knows the place intimately. He is a master of its rules, and knows how to filibuster like no one else.

His Democrat opponents would describe him as an ultra-partisan obstructionist who has abused his power and the institution. There have been occasions though, where McConnell has co-operated with the other side in his six years as minority leader and cut deals. He's mostly done those with Vice-President Joe Biden, not Obama directly.

McConnell isn't known as a charmer, however. New York Times columnist Gail Collins once described him as a man with the natural charisma of an oyster. He's also been compared, physically, to a turtle.

Politicians who have been in the game as long as McConnell have thick skins and the animal references and other insults surely don't get under it.

McConnell has his own fan club anyway that he can rely on to balance out the critics. For three decades now, election after election, he has enjoyed the support of Kentucky voters and he is credited with methodically building up the Republican party in that state. He has put a lot of work into the party and over the years climbed its ranks to become a giant in Kentucky and U.S. politics. He's described as a skilled politician and an all-around smart guy.

Tough re-election campaign

Despite his years of popularity at home, McConnell faced a serious challenger in this election who threatened to get in his way of achieving his majority leader goal. Her name was Alison Lundergan Grimes and she's been alive only slightly longer than McConnell has been sitting in the Senate.

The 35-year-old Democrat surprisingly gave McConnell a competitive race and at times McConnell's re-election was in doubt. But in the end, he pulled off a win with a comfortable margin.

As he takes the reins in the Senate, McConnell faces challenges that will play out over the next two years, until the next election, and his strategic mind will be put to the test. He will have to contend with senators who are considering a presidential run. He will have to maintain party unity while Tea Party members still cause friction.

He will have to decide how often to work with Obama, and on what issues. The Republicans have to show they can govern and get things done in Washington so they have a record to run on in 2016. That might take some deal-making with the president which comes with political risks. Work with the president to get things done, but not too closely, because looking cozy with him won't play well come election time.

The Republican base has expectations of the people they sent to Washington, however unrealistic they may be. Passing a bill to repeal Obamacare will land on Obama's desk and then swiftly fall victim to his veto pen, but they will likely do it anyway, just to say they tried.

Republicans, under McConnell in the Senate and John Boehner in the House of Representatives, have some careful decisions to make in the months ahead.

McConnell said Wednesday he has a "cordial" relationship with Obama and there's "not a personality problem" but the two men surely have a long way to go in terms of their relationship.

A lot changed with Tuesday's election results, but as McConnell indicated in his victory speech that night, some things will never change.

"I don't expect the president to wake up tomorrow and view the world any differently than he did when he woke up this morning. He knows I won't either," he said.

All the bourbon in Kentucky may not be able to bridge the gap between these two men. 

MORE:cbcNews