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McConnell to step down as U.S. Senate GOP leader

(Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Ariana Figueroa, Georgia Recorder
February 28, 2024

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will step down as the Senate Republican leader in November, he said on the Senate floor Wednesday, announcing the end of a run as party leader that broke records for its length and shaped American politics over nearly two decades.

“One of life’s most underappreciated talents is to know when it’s time to move on to life’s next chapter,” McConnell said. “It’s time for the next generation of leadership.”

McConnell, who turned 82 last week, cited the death of his wife’s sister several weeks ago, as an event that prompted him to think about his future.

“When you lose a loved one, particularly at a young age, there’s a certain introspection that accompanies the grieving process,” he said.

President Joe Biden, who spent decades in the Senate before he was elected vice president in 2008, said in impromptu remarks Wednesday that he highly respected McConnell.

“He and I have trust,” he said, according to a White House pool report. “We’ve got a great relationship. We fight like hell but he never, never, never misrepresented anything. I’m sorry to hear he’s stepping down.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement that while he didn’t see “eye to eye,” with McConnell on various policies and politics, the New York Democrat said he was proud of what they were able to accomplish, despite their differences.

“I am very proud that we both came together in the last few years to lead the Senate forward at critical moments when our country needed us, like passing the CARES Act in the early days of the COVID pandemic, finishing our work to certify the election on January 6th, and more recently working together to fund the fight for Ukraine,” Schumer said.

McConnell has faced increasing pressure to endorse the GOP presidential front-runner, Donald Trump. The two have a tense relationship that reached a breaking point following the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol after then-President Trump encouraged supporters to disrupt the certification of electoral votes in the 2020 election.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is the last remaining Republican challenging Trump for the party’s presidential nomination, said in a campaign stop in Utah that McConnell has had an amazing career.”

“We obviously thank him for his leadership and his service,” Haley said at an appearance in Orem, Utah. “But I applaud him for realizing that it is time for new generational change. I think what’s more important is we need to understand we don’t just need new generational change in Congress. We also need new general generational change in the White House.”

Kentucky’s longest-serving senator has shaped the federal judiciary system, including by leading Senate confirmation of 234 lifetime appointments to the federal bench.

He played an important role in establishing a conservative U.S. Supreme Court by blocking Democratic then-President Barack Obama from appointing a justice before the 2016 presidential election.

That conservative Supreme Court has handed down decisions in the past few years with major impacts on American society. The court ended the constitutional right to access abortion care, struck down the Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness plan and expanded gun rights by limiting states’ power to enact gun safety laws.

New leader election in November

McConnell, who first arrived in the Senate in 1984 and became Republican leader in 2007, said he is “not going anywhere” until a new Republican leader is tapped. His Senate term is set to end January 2027.

“I love the Senate,” McConnell said. “It’s been my life.”

Senate Republicans will select a new leader in November. Possible McConnell successors include Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota, Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming and former Republican Whip John Cornyn of Texas.

“As the longest serving Senate leader in American history, Mitch McConnell has made an indelible mark on this institution and the Republican Party,” Cornyn said in a post to X. “For more than 17 years, he has been the steady hand at the helm, guiding us through some of the most consequential debates and decisions in recent history.”

Cornyn also thanked McConnell for protecting “the Senate’s essential role under the Constitution,” and called him “pragmatic, knowledgeable, humble, and effective.”

Thune said it “will be hard to imagine a Senate in which Sen. McConnell isn’t serving as Republican leader” but hinted he would try to succeed the Kentuckian.

“For decades, he’s been a fierce defender of the Senate, our conference, and our party, and we’re all better for his service,” Thune said in a statement. “Mitch leaves enormous shoes to fill, and it’s with humility that I look forward to having a discussion with my colleagues about what the future holds for the Senate Republican Conference and a new generation of leadership. Until then, thank you, Mitch.”

Barrasso praised McConnell’s career as the GOP leader and said that Republicans are focused on the November presidential election and flipping the Senate control.

“That’s what my focus is,” he told reporters Wednesday.

Thune recently endorsed Trump, following earlier endorsements by Barrasso and Cornyn.

Accolades from other GOP senators

More allies among McConnell’s Senate Republican colleagues rushed Wednesday to sing his praises.

North Carolina’s Thom Tillis praised McConnell’s achievements in shaping the judiciary and in enacting conservative policy goals in domestic and foreign policy.

“Leader McConnell is a true legend of the U.S. Senate,” Tillis said in a statement. “Under his historic leadership, the Senate secured a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, passed historic tax reform, and enacted bipartisan legislation to save our economy from the brink at the start of the pandemic.”

Montana’s Steve Daines, who also chairs the GOP’s Senate campaign arm, also touted McConnell’s role in passing the 2017 tax bill that made sweeping changes to the U.S. tax code.

“He will be remembered not only as the longest-serving party leader in the history of the Senate but a consummate gentleman and committed public servant,” Daines said in a statement.

Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia thanked McConnell for his “steadfast leadership and commitment to conservative principles.”

South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham wrote on X that McConnell will be “remembered as one of the most effective leaders in U.S. history.”

“No one in the Republican Party has echoed the themes of peace through strength – the Reagan model of national security – better than Senator Mitch McConnell,” he said.

Nebraska’s Deb Fischer congratulated McConnell for his decades of work in the Senate.

“Leader McConnell has served as a bulwark of conservative leadership throughout his time in the Senate,” she wrote on X. “His fierce reverence for our institution and shrewd consideration of the future made him an extraordinarily effective leader in all situations.”

GOP division apparent

But the schism that emerged in the GOP in recent years between McConnell’s establishment wing and an upstart faction more aligned with Trump was also apparent in the reaction to McConnell’s announcement.

“I called on McConnell to step down over a year ago,” Missouri Republican Josh Hawley tweeted. “This is good news. But why wait so long – we need new leadership now.”

The House Freedom Caucus, an influential group of far-right lawmakers in that chamber, mocked McConnell in a tweet that identified him as a Democrat because he has pursued bipartisan measures to fund Ukraine’s war effort against Russia.

“Our thoughts are with our Democrat colleagues in the Senate on the retirement of their Co-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (D-Ukraine),” a tweet from the caucus’ official account read. “No need to wait till November… Senate Republicans should IMMEDIATELY elect a *Republican* Minority Leader.”

U.S. Rep. Bob Good, a Virginia Republican who is a member of the House Freedom Caucus, said McConnell’s move could allow for more conservative leadership. Good floated Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who led a failed conservative challenge to displace McConnell as GOP leader in November 2022, as a potential successor to McConnell.

“Mitch McConnell stepping down provides a great opportunity for true conservative leadership in the Senate,” Good said. Scott “would make a great Republican leader.”

Wednesday, Scott again called for new leadership in the Senate.

“As everyone knows, I challenged Leader McConnell in 2022,” he said in a statement. “This is an opportunity to refocus our efforts on solving the significant challenges facing our country and actually reflect the aspirations of voters.”

McKenzie Romero contributed to this report.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.