By David Lightman

McClatchy Washington Bureau
December 23, 2014

WASHINGTON — Cuba. Coal. Immigration. The Keystone XL pipeline.

And that’s just for openers. Republican Mitch McConnell becomes the Senate’s majority leader in two weeks, a role he’s been eager to fill for years. He’s eager to challenge President Barack Obama.

That much was clear during a wide-ranging interview with McClatchy this week where he focused on those four topics as places he and the president are likely to clash. Precisely what he will do to counter the president was less clear.

McConnell, like many Republicans, remains miffed that since the Nov. 4 election Obama has taken executive action to halt deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants and announced steps to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba.

The incoming majority leader was also not pleased at Obama administration efforts to curb coal use. “It’s been literally a war on coal,” McConnell said.

Republicans will control 54 of the Senate’s 100 seats next year, as well as 247 of the House of Representatives’ 435 seats. Getting Republican measures through the House is expected to be easy. The Senate, because 60 votes are needed to limit debate, is a tougher task.

McConnell spoke about a variety of topics, including a home state controversy involving Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Paul is considering a run for president in 2016, at the same time he faces re-election to his Senate seat. Kentucky Republicans are pushing to allow him to run for both offices, but Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes says he cannot.

Grimes, who was crushed by McConnell in her Senate bid last month, told WHAS-TV in Louisville last week she would take Paul to court if he tried to run for two offices. McConnell sided with Paul.

“It’s been done before,” he said of running for two offices simultaneously. “We’re not trailblazing here.”

Among the precedents: Joe Biden, who ran for vice president and the U.S. Senate in 2008; Joe Lieberman, who also campaigned for vice president and the U.S. Senate in 2000; and Lyndon Johnson, who ran for vice president and U.S. Senate in 1960.

On Washington matters, McConnell offered this outlook:

– Cuba. He supports the efforts of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a strong critic of the new Cuba policy. “Marco is the expert on this,” McConnell said. “My inclination is his judgment is correct.”

At least three avenues are open to the Senate to thwart Obama’s opening: Maintaining the U.S. embargo, refusing to confirm an ambassador and denying funding for an embassy.

McConnell could have a rough time halting the openings to Cuba, however. Several Republican senators have welcomed Obama’s overtures, and most Democrats are expected to go along.

McConnell would not divulge his strategy, only to say, “We’re looking at the options . . . any kind of funding request, we’ll review that.” He added, “There are a number of leverage points.”

– Immigration. Republicans have been waging war against Obama’s immigration action for weeks. Before leaving last week, they made sure the Homeland Security Department spending bill, which includes funding for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, only provides funds through Feb. 27.

That means Congress has to approve funding for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, which in turn means a January-February fight over immigration policy. The problem for Republicans is that Obama could veto any effort to change his initiatives, and an override would be difficult.

A stalemate could also backfire. If Homeland Security ran out of money, Republicans face being accused of making border enforcement more difficult.

McConnell promised a “significant debate” in February, but beyond that he would not say what he might do. Another Homeland Security Department spending bill, covering fiscal 2016, must be passed by Sept. 30.

– Coal. “There’s a lot of choose from,” McConnell chuckled when asked what Obama administration restrictions he would want to undo.

“Carbon dioxide, ozone, the war on coal,” he said.

When Obama visited China last month, he announced an agreement with that nation to reduce both countries’ greenhouse gas emissions over the next 15 years.

McConnell has been angry about the pact, calling it a “phony deal.”

He’s looking at spending bills as a vehicle to put curbs on the policies. Congress has to approve spending measures to fund the government each year, and the legislation usually represents compromises by both parties, making them difficult for the president to veto.

“It’s the best tool to push back against this extraordinary overreach,” the senator said.

– Keystone. Approving the pipleline from Western Canada to the Gulf Coast will be the first major order of business when the Senate returns Jan. 6, and it’s expected to pass.

Obama has expressed concerns that the project could worsen climate change and would not create many permanent jobs.

Nonsense, said McConnell. “What about construction jobs?” he asked. “Every construction job is a temporary job.”

But there’s little McConnell can do about whether the project remains economically viable. Oil prices have fallen recently to below $60 a barrel. It costs between $85 and $110 per barrel to extract oil from Canada’s tar sands, and some oil economists have said the pipeline, for now, may not make economic sense.