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WASHINGTON — Mitch McConnell is widely known to be a cunning, Machiavellian tactician who maximizes his party’s power in the Senate to accomplish hugely consequential conservative victories, including a right-wing Supreme Court majority that may last for decades.
But the recent drama in Congress’ upper chamber exposed what has been evident behind the scenes for some time now: McConnell’s influence in the GOP has been sharply diminished, and the 81-year-old minority leader who suffered from health problems last year doesn’t hold the same sway in his conference that he once did.
A growing number of conservative senators are in open rebellion with his tactics and heeding instead the words of Donald Trump, the former president McConnell shielded from conviction following the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection — a fateful decision that the GOP establishment is now reaping. Some are even calling on him to step down as leader, a post that he has held longer than any senator in U.S. history.
The Senate’s Republican conference is more divided than ever and afraid of incurring Trump’s wrath over issues that, just a few years ago, it wholeheartedly embraced: stronger border enforcement and a muscular U.S. foreign policy that challenges autocrats rather than champions them, here and at home.
“The last few months have been just abysmally embarrassing,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a McConnell antagonist, reflected this week. “It’s hard to keep track of leadership positions. It shifts hour by hour.”
McConnell’s push for passage of more U.S. aid to Ukraine, which he has called a vital national security issue, has exposed a deep rift within a party that has trended more and more toward isolationism under Trump. This week, only 16 of the Senate’s 49 Republicans voted with McConnell to advance legislation that includes aid to Ukraine. A bill that paired foreign aid with conservative border policy got even less GOP support — just 4 votes — after Trump urged Republicans to kill it, despite months of negotiations with Democrats that McConnell blessed last year.
In truth, a large number of Senate Republicans are opposed to supporting Ukraine with or without U.S. border security provisions, and they’re not interested in listening to McConnell about it. A party leader’s strength in negotiations with the other side of the aisle comes from an ability to maintain party unity, but after months of cajoling, McConnell hasn’t been able to do that. The Kentucky senator initially pushed for passage of aid to Ukraine in October but was overruled by a majority of his conference, which demanded the border policy changes in the first place.
“I followed the instructions of my conference,” McConnell explained this week. “It was my side that wanted to tackle the border. We started it. Obviously with a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate, our negotiators had to deal with them.”
He added that the “politics changed” since then, as Trump romped to victories in early GOP presidential nominating states and urged Republicans to reject the deal so he could continue blaming Democrats for border problems in November’s general election.
GOP criticism of McConnell is nothing new. After the 2022 midterm elections, 11 Republican senators voted against him as leader in a secret ballot. What is striking is how much louder the critics have become lately, and how much effort they’ve put into undermining his strategy at every step of the way. The group includes Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Cruz declared earlier this week that it’s time for McConnell to go, lashing out at the policy and politics behind the border bill.
“I think a Republican leader should actually lead this conference and should advance the priorities of Republicans,” the Texas senator said at a press conference.
Tensions over the border bill and Ukraine funding boiled over in a seemingly endless series of closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill, as Republicans agonized over whether to proceed despite opposition from both Trump and Republican leadership in the House. One GOP senator joked that the party was staging an “intervention” after one particular heated discussion earlier this week. In the end, after months of negotiations, Republicans ditched the border bill in favor of a stand-alone foreign aid package, something that was on the table last year.
Democrats marveled at the chaos and wondered how they could ever trust Republican negotiators again.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like the depth of the anger,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said of the state of the GOP. “They have some challenges as a conference, and it’s not obvious to me that they’ll be able to pull it all back together.”
One bright spot for McConnell and GOP leadership is that next year they stand a good chance of retaking the Senate majority. Unlike in 2022, when he backed extremist candidates for the Senate, Trump this time is much more aligned with the preferences of the establishment GOP. On Friday, for example, Trump backed businessman Tim Sheehy in Montana over conservative Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) in the race against incumbent Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). As retiring Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) seat in West Virginia is vey likely to flip, a GOP pickup in either Montana or Ohio, two red states where Trump is popular, would give the party a majority.
But McConnell’s life could get even more complicated if Trump wins the White House again. The two men have a frosty relationship, McConnell rarely mentions Trump, and Trump has made no secret about his desire for a new leader who is more closely aligned with him on Ukraine and other issues.
“It’s a tough, tough job. He’s in a tough position,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said of McConnell. “I think he is frustrated that the standard-bearer of his party has a totally different view.”
McConnell’s GOP allies in the Senate, meanwhile, have downplayed criticism of his strategy and described his role as more of a facilitator than a captain.
“Mitch’s job is not to tell us how to vote; it’s to coordinate the thing to get through as best as he can. He doesn’t set the agenda,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said.
“There’s always been the opinion of some of the members that they would have preferred a different leader. That hasn’t changed,” he added. “But right now, I can just tell you that I think if you had a vote today, he would still get a supermajority of the members supporting him.”
Sen. MItt Romney (R-Utah) said of the push to oust McConnell, “I don’t think that’s in the cards until he decides that’s something he wants to do, which I don’t expect anytime soon.”