Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell this week expressed firm support for a guest worker program to help bring in more low-skilled workers for farm labor and other industries.
In an exclusive interview with Yahoo News, the Kentucky Republican said any legislation pushed by the Senate “Gang of Eight” must include such a provision.
“We need a good guest worker program. The one we have now is not working very well,” McConnell told Chief Washington Correspondent Olivier Knox, noting it was difficult for farmers to harvest crops without such low-wage assistance. "So there’s a practical reality to needing a guest worker program, and I’m sure that will be a part of the final bill.”
McConnell’s comments are significant given that a guest worker program, which would allow an employer to sponsor a non-U.S. citizen as an employee for labor purposes, has been opposed by labor unions and others who see it as a threat to low wage U.S. workers.
McConnell did not endorse any of the principles the bipartisan Senate group has outlined, including an eventual path to citizenship for millions currently living illegally in the U.S. He emphasized instead that the group is moving Congress in a "direction" toward reform.
"I think there’s a bipartisan desire to do something important here, a feeling that our immigration system is broken – it certainly is," McConnell said.
McConnell spoke to Knox about a range of subjects in the 20-minute interview, from President Barack Obama's State of the Union address to what he thinks of Vice President Joe Biden to a potential political challenge from Ashley Judd to how the Kentucky senator likes his bourbon.
McConnell said he is skeptical about whether to pass new gun restrictions in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., and elsewhere.
Calling himself “a strong Second Amendment supporter,” McConnell cast doubt on the government's ability to help prevent gun violence by enacting gun reform.
"These school shootings are just horrendous. It absolutely shocks and appalls everybody in the country," McConnell said. "The question is: What can the government do about insane people doing horrendous things? It's a very complex question."
McConnell declined to say whether he supports expanded background checks for prospective gun buyers -- something Obama has championed.
The president has made gun safety restrictions a signature issue for his second term following the Newtown shooting. The president chose Biden to head up the task force to help craft legislative proposals to stem gun violence and gather input from a range of special interest groups, the public, advocates and others.
Biden, a 36-year veteran of the Senate from Delaware, has been a key negotiator for the president on Capitol Hill.
McConnell notably helped reach a New Year's Eve deal to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff by reaching out to Biden.
"What is it that former Senator Biden brings to the table in a negotiation like this that the president himself doesn't?" Knox asked.
McConnell joked that Biden wasn't "freelancing," suggesting Obama was well aware of what the vice president was doing in the negotiations with McConnell.
McConnell suggested Obama had recently missed a major opportunity to unite lawmakers behind his agenda.
"I was disappointed in the inaugural speech, which was very much on the far left," McConnell said. "I hope that the president will use the State of the Union to move back to the political center so we can do some important things for the American people."
Knox told McConnell that many Yahoo readers had said on Facebook and Twitter that they were interested in McConnell's reaction to a widely reported comment he made in 2010, when he said his No. 1 goal was to make Obama a "one-term president."
McConnell said he made those comments before the 2012 race, “as any active Republican would," but that he was willing to work with Obama now that he has been re-elected to a second term.
McConnell claimed Wednesday that the president's plan to use the government to help boost the economy was a failure and that the economy has been "tepid for four straight years."
"Most of what he's done hasn't worked," McConnell said.
That claim conflicts with data showing that under Obama the economy has added jobs and corporate profits have grown, and with other positive factors that show an economy in a slow but gradual recovery despite a slight contraction in the gross domestic product in the fourth quarter of 2012.
McConnell acknowledged he may face a tough primary challenge in 2014, in part because he has been at odds with tea party members in his state and because those in Senate leadership roles in both parties are juicy targets for defeat.
Could that mean a Sen. Ashley Judd, who is considering running for the Democratic nomination in Kentucky?
"Who I actually end up running against either in the primary or the general will be determined in 2014 and we'll take a look at it then," McConnell said.
One thing McConnell was eager to discuss: bourbon, the drink his home state is known for.
"The best way to drink it, in my opinion, is to make a Manhattan, which is a combination of bourbon and other unknown substances,” McConnell said. “Drop a couple of cherries on top of it, make sure there's ice there, and it's a terrific drink around Christmastime, which I frequently offer to my guests."