lOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's disappointment had faded, at least outwardly, as he assessed his future in a diminished leadership role he didn't expect.
The four-term Kentucky senator had planned on becoming Senate majority leader in the next Congress, but Republicans were relegated to minority status after last month's election put Democrats in power. McConnell was unanimously selected as the top Republican Senate leader by his GOP colleagues.
McConnell, known as a shrewd political tactician, said the 49 Republican senators next year will form "the most robust minority possible," and indicated he'll use that as leverage to help shape legislation.
"We will not be without some clout to modify things that we think are fixable," said McConnell, who has been the second-ranking Senate Republican in recent years.
And if Republicans ultimately find a bill unacceptable, they can block it, he said.
In a deliberative body where 60 votes are often needed to accomplish anything, McConnell said his job will be easier than that of his counterpart, Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
"Sen. Reid starts off with 51 in his quest to get 60," McConnell said in a speech to a friendly Kentucky Farm Bureau audience. "I start off with 49 in my quest to get 41."
McConnell spoke of cooperation, not stalemate, as he prepares for Democrats to assume Senate control.
"Gridlock is not my first choice," McConnell told the farm group. "My first choice is to accomplish things for the country. You all didn't send us up there to just play games and engage in
He spoke of working with Democrats to pass an ethics reform package.
"We should have done that this year," McConnell said. "They'll have good cooperation from us on that."
For instance, McConnell said he supports requiring lawmakers to put their names on "earmarks" - spending items added to bills that often help a specific company or project in their districts.
"Frankly, the earmarking that I've done I've bragged about," McConnell said in an interview.
Another priority for Democrats that appears within reach is a minimum wage increase, he said. In return, he said, Republicans will seek tax relief for small businesses most affected by the wage boost.
But McConnell said he wants Congress to aim higher - "to do something important and long-lasting for the country." He mentioned Social Security as one such issue ripe for action.
"We all know this is an enormous problem," he said. "We all know that it will get worse each year if not tackled. Sometimes divided government produces very good results on big issues."
President Bush pledged to make overhaul of Social Security a top priority in his second term, but has failed to make headway in Congress with a plan to offer private savings accounts for younger workers.
"Why don't we surprise ourselves and the public and do something before the last minute," McConnell told the farm group. "Quit kicking the can down the road."
Another issue that Congress should tackle is immigration, he said.
In his speech to the Farm Bureau, which includes farmers who rely on migrant labor to plant and harvest their crops, McConnell called for a comprehensive approach that includes an improved guest worker program.
Historically, McConnell said, immigration has given the country a "renewal of energetic, ambitious people," and said his wife, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, was a "classic example." Chao, the first Asian-American woman appointed to a president's cabinet, came to the U.S. as an 8-year-old who spoke no English.
But McConnell said illegal immigrants should not be given preferential treatment for citizenship.
"My view is you can't round everybody up and send them back," he said. "But you certainly, in terms of the issue of citizenship, should not reward somebody for illegal entry. If they want to become a citizen, there's a process for doing that and they ought to get at the back of the line in whatever country you came from and wait your turn like everybody else."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved