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Mitch McConnell: Obama should "move to the middle" to work with the GOP

Last Updated Oct 31, 2014 12:45 AM EDT

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky -- potentially the majority leader if the GOP wins control of the Senate -- tells CBS News that Republicans are ready to work with President Obama if he's ready to "move to the middle" and work with them.

"The main goal is to see whether we can make progress for the country," McConnell told CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes about his priorities for the next two years. "But obviously the president is the only person who can sign something into law. So whether we can make much progress the next few years depends on him. I'd like to see him move to the middle."

Should Republicans win control of the Senate, they will likely have only a one- or two-seat majority. Consequently, the party will have to decide whether it will work with Democrats to move forward with a modest agenda, or whether it will heed to its tea party faction and refuse to compromise on issues like tax reform. The direction the party takes could have implications for the 2016 elections -- both the presidential and the Senate elections that year.

McConnell told Cordes that Republicans want to address issues like comprehensive tax reform and trade agreements.

"Reagan and Tip O'Neill found things that they could agree on. Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich found things that they could agree on. My first choice is to make some progress for the country," he said. "And the only way to do that with the president in the office is with his involvement. So that's my first choice."

At the same time, McConnell acknowledged that there are "plenty of things we disagree on" and that the GOP is ready to send Mr. Obama a bill or two that "makes him uncomfortable."

"That's an experience he hasn't had!" the GOP leader remarked, noting Mr. Obama has vetoed just two minor bills in six years. Just about every conservative piece of legislation passed by the Republican-led House has died in the Democratic-led Senate, before reaching Mr. Obama's desk.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with sending the president a bill that makes him uncomfortable. He doesn't own the place! Congress is a factor, too," McConnell said. "You know we are elected by our constituents all across America. We need to have an impact on policy as well."

In response to McConnell's assertion that Mr. Obama should "move to the middle," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told CBS News, "For the last six years, the president spent his entire time fighting for the middle class. We have not seen that same kind of commitment from Republicans in Congress."

Mr. Obama's goals like ensuring equal pay for women in the workplace and making college more affordable have stalled because of Republican obstruction, he said.

"If Republicans want to move away from an agenda that only benefits special interests... then yeah, I do think we can make some progress," Earnest said, asserting that the president's proposals "aren't Democratic or Republican."

As for the specific issue of tax reform, Earnest said that Mr. Obama is interested in using some of the revenue saved by reforming taxes to invest in policies that will create jobs. Republicans so far, he said, have only expressed interest in reforming the tax code to "cut taxes further for big businesses."

Earnest said that Mr. Obama has consistently conveyed his "willingness to work with anybody," though he expressed skepticism that McConnell actually wants to work with the president.

"Actions peak a whole lot louder than words five days out from an election," he said.

McConnell, who has long criticized the way Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, runs the Senate, told Cordes that it's "embarrassing" how little Congress has gotten done in recent years.

Asked about the split between the tea partiers in Congress and the rest of the GOP, McConnell said it should be easy enough to reconcile those two sides.

"There's much that's been done that needs to be undone," he said. "And much that's been done that needs to be changed. And that will require legislation."

If he is elected Senate leader, McConnell said that he and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, would immediately hold a discussion with the Republican caucus to hash out their agenda.

"I think announcing the agenda before the election is over is somewhat akin to measuring the drapes, and the American people have not yet made the decision to entrust us with a majority in the Senate," he said. "I hope they make that decision, and if they do we'll unveil it shortly thereafter."

Still, McConnell noted that some obvious priorities for his parties include a vote on the Keystone XL pipeline and a vote to repeal the unpopular medical device tax that was included in Obamacare. He and his members, McConnell said, "have been talking about things we think could enjoy bipartisan support in the Senate -- none of which have been allowed to be voted on by the current Senate."

McConnell reiterated ways he'd run the Senate differently than Reid, noting that he would allow for debate over amendments to bills on the Senate floor and would include more Friday workdays on the Senate schedule.

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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.