To hear U. S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Louisville) tell it, his legacy as Senate Majority Leader is likely to be more about his impact on the judicial branch of government than on any legislative achievements.

McConnell, in Bowling Green Monday to address a Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce lunchtime meeting at the Warren County Area Technology Center, focused his speech and a follow-up interview on the impact of federal judicial appointments during this period of Republican control of the Senate, the House of Representatives and the White House.

"We're in the process of transforming the courts for a generation," said McConnell, who has served in the Senate since 1985 and as majority leader since January of 2015.

A look at the numbers would indicate that the senator is on the mark. In addition to the appointment and confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, 14 judges have been confirmed to the United States Court of Appeals and another 14 have been added to U.S. District Courts during President Donald Trump's 14 months in office.

And they are judges, according to McConnell, who line up with his party's right-leaning ideology.

"We've been picking solid, strict constitutionalists," said McConnell, 76. "These are men and women who try to interpret laws as written or as the Constitution seems to specify."

While tax reform, the budget bill and tariffs have been getting the attention, McConnell said those issues take a back seat to making sure that folks donning robes in federal courts have the right political leanings.

"We never leave taxes alone," he said. "We're always revisiting the tax code. But if you want to have a long-term impact on the country, the best way to do it is through lifetime appointments to the courts."

That's why McConnell, although his sixth Senate term isn't up until 2020, is spreading the word that the GOP needs to maintain its slim majority in the Senate this year, when 34 of the 100 seats are being contested.

"If we can hold the Senate through Trump's four-year term, I think we can have a transformative effect on what America is going to look like for the next quarter-century," he said. "I have a thin majority. We lost a seat in Alabama, and that made it 51 to 49. With senator (John) McCain ailing right now, it's really down to 50-49. Fortunately, we've had good unity in confirming judges."

While he's in lockstep with the president on judicial appointments, McConnell takes issue with some of Trump's recent actions and statements regarding international trade.

The president has slapped tariffs on imported steel and aluminum and announced $50 billion in annual tariffs and other penalties on a broad range of imported Chinese products.

"I'm nervous about it," the senator said about the Trump tariffs. "I've voted for every free-trade agreement since I've been in the Senate. I think NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) has been a plus for Kentucky and is clearly a plus for agriculture.

"Everyone knows China has been stealing our intellectual property, and we're angry about it. But if we descend into a trade war, it can undo the positive impact of tax reform. If all we get out of a trade war with them is that they quit buying our agriculture products, that's not good."

McConnell also talked about his support for legalizing industrial hemp as an agricultural commodity and removing it from the list of controlled substances at the federal level.

"Talk about a diversified plant," he said. "Material from hemp can be in your car's dashboard, in different fibers and even in your medicine. I don't know if it will ever be as big as burley tobacco, but it has a lot of potential."

While he touted this year's tax reform that he said has "taken money out of Washington and put it in the pockets of the American people," McConnell expressed some dissatisfaction with the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that will continue years of deficit spending.

"We can't get all Republicans to vote for spending bills," he lamented. "So we have to deal with Democrats. We either shut down the government or make deals with the Democrats."

Such political gridlock has stymied efforts to get comprehensive immigration reform, including resolution of the issue of children covered under the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy and the building of a border wall.

"Honestly, I don't see a way forward on immigration," he said. "But I think it starts with a better border. There will be a lot of wall built. There are certain places where it doesn't make sense, but we have to deal with the core problem."

McConnell advocates for a "merit-based" immigration system in which he says "the best and brightest are given preference over those coming in illegally."

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