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Mitch McConnell to step down as Senate Republican leader after 17 years

The Kentucky Republican has led the GOP senators since January 2007, and is the longest-serving leader in the upper chamber’s history

Andrew Feinberg
Wednesday 28 February 2024 21:26 GMT
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Mitch McConnell stepping down as Senate leader

Senator Mitch McConnell, the longest-serving party leader in the upper chamber’s history, will stand aside from his leadership post after the November general election.

The Kentucky Republican, who has been the GOP’s leader since 2007, announced his decision from the Senate floor yesterday.

Speaking from the front-row desk traditionally allotted to the party floor leader, Mr McConnell told his colleagues that the loss of his sister-in-law in recent weeks had led him to “a certain introspection”.

The Bluegrass State senator, who has in recent months had several public episodes in which he appeared to freeze for several seconds, leading to concerns over his health, also noted that at 82 years old, the “end of [my] contributions” were “closer than I prefer”.

He said leading the Senate Republicans had been “the honour of my life” and “the highest privilege” but he added that “one of life’s most under-appreciated talents” is “to know when it’s time to move on to life’s next chapter. So I stand before you today ... to say that this will be my last term as Republican leader of the Senate.”

Mr McConnell added that he would finish his term as Kentucky’s senior senator, “albeit from a different seat”, and said he was “actually looking forward to that”.

He went on: “I love the Senate. It’s been my life. There may be more distinguished members of this body throughout our history, but I doubt there were any with any more admiration for the Senate. After all this time, I still get a thrill walking into the Capitol ... knowing that we, each of us, have the honour to represent our states and do the important work of our country.

“But Father Time remains undefeated. I’m no longer the young man sitting in the back hoping colleagues would remember my name. It’s time for the next generation of leadership.” He added later that he still has “enough gas in my tank to thoroughly disappoint my critics” and intends “to do so with all the enthusiasm with which they’ve become accustomed”.

Mr McConnell walking to the Senate to speak on the floor on 28 February 2024 (AP)

The announcement comes amid rising isolationism in his party, which continues to be led by twice-impeached and four-times-indicted former president Donald Trump.

Mr McConnell and Mr Trump have not spoken since the then Senate majority leader acknowledged the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory. Mr McConnell later denounced Mr Trump’s role in the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

More recently, the GOP leader has been a strong proponent of continued defence assistance to Ukraine, a stance that has drawn the ire of Mr Trump and his supporters, who would rather deny President Biden a foreign policy victory by halting assistance to Kyiv.

But Mr McConnell, who worked with Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer to push through a supplemental appropriations package, which is currently bottled up in the Republican-led House, said his world view was still that which had been shaped by the foreign policy of former president Ronald Reagan.

He acknowledged the shift towards Trumpian isolationism in his remarks telling his colleagues: “I know the politics within my party at this particular moment in time.

Mr McConnell speaking on the Senate floor, and telling his colleagues he’ll step down in November (AP)

“I have many faults. Misunderstanding politics is not one of them. That said I believe more strongly than ever that America’s global leadership is essential to preserving the shining city on a hill that Ronald Reagan discussed. As long as I’m drawing breath on this earth, I will defend American exceptionalism.”

The Kentuckian’s exit from the Republican leadership roster comes after four years in the minority following the Democrats’ takeover of the upper chamber, after special elections for Georgia’s senate seats in January 2021.

Before that, he spent six years leading a Republican senate majority that reshaped the American court system by confirming hundreds of conservative judicial nominees under Donald Trump. He had also used his authority over Senate scheduling to block consideration of nominees put forward by Barack Obama.

In one infamous instance of obstruction, Mr McConnell held the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat open after his 2016 death rather than allowing a vote on Mr Obama’s nominee to fill the slot, then DC circuit court judge – now US Attorney General – Merrick Garland. He later called the obstruction of Mr Garland’s Supreme Court nomination his proudest moment as a senator.

Despite Mr McConnell’s reputation as a partisan brawler and practitioner of political hardball, he also developed a reputation for pragmatism on important matters, such as keeping the US government open rather than allowing it to shut down by letting funding legislation lapse.

His tendency to support bipartisan legislation put him at odds with Mr Trump, who never forgave him for accepting his successor’s legitimacy as president or for criticising his role in the January 6 attack.

Mr Biden, who served with Mr McConnell in the Senate for just over two decades, told reporters at the White House that he was “sorry to hear” that his former colleague was standing aside from leadership.

“He and I... I’ve trusted him and we have a great relationship. We fight like hell. But he has never, never, never misrepresented anything,” he said.

In a subsequent statement released by the White House press office, Mr Biden noted that America’s democracy “is based on elected representatives coming together and bridging their different points of view to find common ground on behalf of the American people” and said he was “proud that my friend Mitch McConnell and I have been able to do that for many years, working 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,” he said. “Mitch has lived the American dream, overcoming polio and going on to become the longest-serving Senate leader in American history. Jill and I wish the best to Mitch and Elaine”.

The Bluegrass State stalwart’s retirement from leadership will open a spot that is expected to be filled by either South Dakota senator and current GOP whip John Thune, Texas senator and former whip John Cornyn, or Wyoming senator John Barrasso.

Asked to weigh in on the news, Mr Thune told The Independent: “He leaves obviously big shoes to fill. I think there, there’ll be plenty of time. Today we just want to reflect on his service and honour him for that.”

The junior senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, said he was “grateful for [Mr McConnell’s] time and service. There are natural transitions in leadership. I think he made the judgment that now’s the right time.

“I’m sure there will be vigorous discussion and debate among the conference [the Republican grouping of senators] as to who the next Republican leader should be and I hope the next leader is capable and effective and fighting for conservative principles.”

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