Democrats share their fears about Mitch McConnell’s successor

The Senate Minority Leader’s announcement that he will step down this year has come as a shock to members of both parties

Eric Garcia
Wednesday 28 February 2024 21:30 GMT
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (L) has been a major partner with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) in supporting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (L) has been a major partner with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) in supporting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Few people like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell less than Senator Elizabeth Warren. In 2017, during the confirmation vote for Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, he led Republicans to silence her when she called out the then-Alabama Senator’s racism. McConnell infamously said, “She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” His push for unlimited money in politics has created the exact type of plutocratic system that Warren rails against.

Nonetheless, McConnell and Warren both ardently support funding Ukraine in its war against Russia. That is probably why she told me she worried about the hole that he will leave behind after he announced he would step aside as Senate minority leader.

“I am concerned that the next Republican leader in the Senate will just bend a knee of whatever Donald Trump wants, no matter how crazy it is,” she told The Independent.

McConnell has been the chief roadblock to much of what Democrats want. A master of Senate procedure, nobody used the filibuster to block Democratic priorities more effectively than McConnell. He notably refused to join Barack Obama and other congressional leaders to denounce Russian interference in the 2016 election. He blocked Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court on the basis of not wanting to confirm a justice in a presidential year and then, in 2020, broke his own rule to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Arguably McConnell is more responsible than Trump for the death of Roe v Wade due to his fundamental altering of the federal judiciary.

He prided himself on being the “Grim Reaper” of Democratic priorities, blocking everything from extending voting rights to statehood for Puerto Rico. But at the same time, Democrats know they can do business with him. His decades-long friendship with Joe Biden allowed Washington to avert many a crisis and he famously said, “There's a reason 'get Joe on the phone' is shorthand for 'Time to get serious' in my office.”

While he voted to acquit Trump for his actions on January 6, McConnell voted to certify the 2020 election and has become a capable partner with Democrats not just on Ukraine, but also on manufacturing semiconductors, infrastructure and the first major piece of gun legislation in 28 years.

As Republicans tried to process their shock at the fact that the man who led their conference for 17 years was standing down, Democrats feared that the next person will be much less of a negotiating partner.

“McConnell has shown good judgment several times on Trump's extreme positions,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin told The Independent. He added that he hopes whoever succeeds McConnell is able to mediate in a similar way.

“The survival of Ukraine is important for America's national security. So I hope that whoever the Republicans choose that they maintain that commitment,” Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois told The Independent.

Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, who ran against the former president and Mike Pence as Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016, also expressed his concern about the next Republican leader being beholden to Trump.

“The Republican caucus will decide on their own leadership, I don't get to vote on that,” he told The Independent. “But I am disappointed with the degree to which Donald Trump — who really isn't a member of a party, he's all about himself — just kind of grabbed the soul of the GOP.”

McConnell’s influence has diminished drastically even in the past month. He dispatched James Lankford, the archconservative from Oklahoma, to negotiate with Democratic Senator Chris Murphy and Independent Senator Kyrsten Sinema on a bill adding restrictions to immigration and security for the US-Mexico border in exchange for aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. But Trump and House Republicans torpedoed the bill before the ink dried. It revealed how McConnell — the one-time power broker who ruled the GOP conference with an iron fist — no longer could control his troops.

Murphy for his part said it is too early to worry about the direction of the Senate GOP conference.

“I think the majority of Senate Republicans want to get things done,” he told The Independent. “So my hope is that they elect a leader who's working to facilitate getting things done.”

But Murphy can keep hoping. Last year, Tommy Tuberville, the Auburn University football coach-turned-senator from Alabama, placed a blanket hold on military promotions in protest of the Pentagon’s policy that reimburses US servicemembers who travel to seek an abortion in a state where it is more readily available. McConnell opposed that blockade but it only ended after months and a significant backlog.

And McConnell had to spend millions of extra dollars to drag MAGA-adjacent candidates like JD Vance across the finish line in Ohio in 2022. Senator Rick Scott of Florida challenged him to be Republican leader, even after Scott failed to flip a single seat as National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman.

While McConnell has remained tight-lipped about Trump, his potential successors — namely the “Three Johns,” Senators John Thune of South Dakota, John Cornyn of Texas and John Barrasso of Wyoming — have all endorsed the former president whom McConnell despises.

But Democrats more than anyone recognise that McConnell is now a victim of his own making. Russia would not have been emboldened to invade Ukraine had it not seen how it could interfere with US elections. McConnell would be majority leader had the Supreme Court not overturned Roe and voters rejected the GOP in response. And Trump would not be the presumptive Republican nominee had McConnell not voted to acquit him for inciting a riot at the US Capitol.

Nevertheless, Democrats fears of a Trumpified GOP persist.

This article was amended on 29 February 2024. It previously incorrectly referred to Dick Durbin as Senate Minority Whip. He is Senate Majority Whip.

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