Sen. Mitch McConnell will step down as Republican leader at the end of the year

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will step down from the helm of the Republican Conference this year, ending his time as the longest-serving leader in Senate history.

McConnell, R-Ky., who has served as GOP leader since 2007, made his announcement in a Senate floor speech Wednesday. An election to replace him as leader will occur in November, with his successor taking charge in January.

"One of life’s most underappreciated talents is to know when it’s time to move on to life’s next chapter, so I stand before you today, Mr. President and my colleagues, to say this will be my last term as Republican leader of the Senate," McConnell said, adding in his address that he had "total clarity and peace about the sunset of my work."

President Joe Biden, a longtime friend of McConnell's despite their frequent sparring over politics, praised him in a statement, saying he was proud that they had been able to work together "in good faith even though we have many political disagreements."

"During his many years of leadership, we could always speak with each other honestly and put the country ahead of ourselves," Biden said.

Colleagues regard McConnell as an effective political tactician and one of the most influential lawmakers in Washington. With then-President Donald Trump, McConnell helped enact a sweeping $1.5 trillion tax package in 2017 that slashed corporate rates, provided new breaks for private businesses and reorganized the individual tax code.

But McConnell's most consequential legacy dates to his extraordinary decision in 2016 to refuse to let President Barack Obama fill a vacant Supreme Court seat. He went on to shepherd three conservative Supreme Court nominees — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — through the Senate under Trump's presidency, creating the most right-leaning court in nearly a century and reshaping American law. That court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, ending the national right to abortion, among many other major decisions.

"There are some pretty major victories that the two men together accomplished and neither one of them could have, probably, without the other," said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.

But McConnell's once formidable influence over the Senate GOP has dimmed over the last year as the conference becomes more aligned with Trump, who has a famously frosty relationship with McConnell and recently said he didn't think he could work with him if he's re-elected president. Trump and McConnell haven't spoken in more than three years, hitting a breaking point with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. McConnell voted to acquit Trump in the impeachment trial that followed, but he gave a scathing speech on the Senate floor saying Trump was "practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day."

Still, aides to both top Republicans have recently held discussions, including an effort to get McConnell to endorse Trump for re-election.

The Republican conference has recently broken with McConnell on matters like Ukraine aid and a bipartisan border security deal. And his critics had promised he would face a challenge if he sought to run again for the leader position.

The race for a successor is expected to begin immediately with the "three Johns" — Senate Minority Whip John Thune, of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican Sen. John Barrasso, of Wyoming, and former GOP Whip Sen. John Cornyn, of Texas — widely expected to run for the position.

"I plan to support John," joked Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio.

Thune, 63, is the favorite to replace McConnell, given that he’s well regarded by colleagues and the No. 2 GOP leader. But while he endorsed Trump in recent days, Thune has also clashed with the former president and likely GOP 2024 presidential nominee — a fact that could complicate the senator’s bid for the top job.

That could provide an opening for either Barrasso, who is more aligned with Trump, or Cornyn, a former No. 2 leader under McConnell and a prolific fundraiser. None of the three Johns announced their bids Wednesday, allowing McConnell to have his day.

"It is a remarkable record on longevity, on accomplishments, and we ought to celebrate that record," Barrasso told NBC News.

Added Thune: "He leaves, obviously, big shoes to fill. ... Today we just want to reflect on his service and honor him for that and then we'll go from there."

Health issues for McConnell, 82, almost certainly played a role in his decision. Last March, he sustained a concussion and fractured a rib when he took a bad fall at a private dinner at a Washington hotel, sidelining him for six weeks.

Then in July, McConnell froze for 19 seconds at a news conference in the Capitol, worrying colleagues who said they had noticed a change in the longtime leader and they believed the fall had taken a toll. He appeared to freeze a second time at a Kentucky event the following month.

In announcing his decision, McConnell also noted the toll on his family following the recent death of his sister-in-law, Angela Chao, in a car accident.

McConnell suggested he would finish out his term as senator, which ends in January 2027. "I’ll finish the job the people of Kentucky hired me to do, as well, albeit from a different seat," he said. "And I’m actually looking forward to that."

Several Republican colleagues praised McConnell for recognizing it was time to pass the torch to a younger generation of leaders.

"He's 82 years old and decided it's time to pass the baton to the next generation. That's something that I've been saying for a long time. I made the decision myself even though I'm a spry 76," said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a McConnell ally who is not seeking re-election this fall.

"He's reached an age where he said it's time to move on and let someone else take the helm," Romney said.

But McConnell's conservative critics said they weren't sorry to see him go. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., noted that he called on McConnell to step aside as leader more than a year ago and voted against him as leader this Congress.

"So this is a good development. My question is: Why wait so long?" Hawley said. "I mean, November's a long time away. We have a lot to achieve between now and then. We need new leadership now. It's my view, but this is better than nothing."

CORRECTION (March 5, 2024, 9:40 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when Sen. Mitch McConnell’s term in the Senate ends. It concludes in January 2027, not January 2026.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com