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McConnell's Exit Means GOP Uncertainty 02/29 06:14


   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Long before Sen. Mitch McConnell surprised colleagues 
Wednesday announcing he would step down as the Republican leader this fall, he 
knew the time had come.

   Hard-right Republican senators aligned with Donald Trump wanted to oust him. 
Trump was easily becoming the party's frontrunner for a do-over election with 
President Joe Biden. And, having largely recovered his health from a 
devastating fall last year, McConnell was back on his game.

   In assembling top aides in January to disclose his intentions, ahead of his 
82nd birthday, McConnell told them he had just one more priority to secure: 
supplemental aid for Ukraine as it battles Russia.

   "Believe me, I know the politics within my party at this particular moment 
in time," McConnell said in a speech delivered midday Wednesday from the Senate 

   His voice cracking at times, he said that's why he worked so hard to see the 
national security aid pass the Senate this month, insisting "America's global 
leadership is essential" -- even though the aid is still tied up in the House.

   He said, "I have many faults, misunderstanding politics is not one of them."

   McConnell's departure leaves the Senate, and the Republican Party itself, at 
an uncertain crossroads, days before the Super Tuesday presidential primary 
elections when Trump is expected to sweep up more states in his march to the 
Republican Party nomination.

   Trump's ascent proved to be an almost untenable political situation for 
McConnell -- the two men have not spoken since December 2020, when McConnell 
declared that Biden had legally won that year's election. McConnell lashed out 
at the defeated president after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, 
calling Trump "morally responsible" for the bloody siege. He has not yet 
endorsed Trump for president in 2024.

   Like the House, where Republicans ousted Kevin McCarthy as speaker in fall, 
the latest in a growing list of GOP speakers sent prematurely to the exits, the 
Senate is now following suit in the Trump era, essentially leaving the 
long-serving McConnell with few options but to decide for himself it was time 
to go.

   "I think it'll be great, because I think Trump will win, we have a leader 
who can work well with the next Republican president," said Sen. JD Vance of 

   There was a time when few senators would dare criticize McConnell, a Ronald 
Reagan-era Republican first elected in 1984, who now controls a vast political 
operation that can make or break elections.

   In fact, a majority of Republican senators still back McConnell's 
leadership, many heaping praise on the taciturn strategist who secured the 
Trump tax cuts in 2017 and led Senate confirmation of three justices to the 
Supreme Court, tilting its balance toward conservatives.

   Behind closed doors, Republican senators gave McConnell a standing ovation 
during a private luncheon. Even some of McConnell's biggest critics praised him 
after he spoke. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson said it was a "poignant moment."

   Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said while he thinks McConnell could have won 
another term if he sought one, he acknowledged the historic political shift 
underway in the GOP.

   "I think the Republican Party is going through a pretty dramatic 
transition," Rubio said. "And that's obviously playing out in the halls of 
Congress as well."

   And increasingly emboldened detractors piled on Wednesday saying McConnell's 
leaving could not come fast enough -- and in fact, he should step down before 
his announced November departure.

   "This is a good development -- my question is: Why wait so long?" said Sen. 
Josh Hawley, R-Mo.

   Hawley said November is a long time away. "We need new leadership. Now."

   But it's also highly unclear who will replace McConnell when he steps aside, 
as a trio of Republican senators in leadership roles known as the "three Johns" 
--- the No. 2 Republican John Thune of South Dakota, former whip John Cornyn of 
Texas and John Barrasso of Wyoming -- have been vying for the job behind the 

   Thune told reporters that obviously McConnell's departure leaves "big shoes 
to fill," but that now is a time "to reflect on his service and and honor him 
for that. And then we'll we'll go from there."

   Barrasso said he will be talking to fellow senators and listening to what 
they have to say about the "direction they want to take."

   And there could be other challengers. Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, 
a millionaire former governor who had challenged McConnell for the top job last 
time, could also run again. He said he was focused on his own reelection in the 
fall, but "we'll see what happens."

   The longest-serving Senate leader, McConnell helmed his party in both the 
majority and minority, and he has not tipped his hand on whom he wants to 
replace him. Leadership elections typically take place in November, after the 
national elections, with new leaders taking the helm with the new Congress in 

   Seen as a steely strategist who keeps his cards close to his vest, McConnell 
blindsided even allies with his sudden announcement.

   Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming said she learned "about 15 seconds" before it 
happened -- sitting in the chamber cloakroom when another colleague showed her 
the news on his phone.

   Lost in the development is the fate of Ukraine aid as frontline troops run 
short of supplies to fight the Russian invasion and Trump encourages Congress 
to stop helping Kyiv.

   McConnell secured Senate passage of the $95 billion national security 
supplemental for Ukraine, Israel and Indo-Pacific allies in an overwhelmingly 
bipartisan vote, a capstone in his long career.

   But Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson refuses, for now, to reach across 
the aisle to Democrats to pass it.

   Johnson, R-La., delivered his own tribute in a statement and said 
McConnell's "legacy will endure for generations."

   House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries said he was confident McConnell 
would work "to ensure that the national security bill gets over the legislative 
finish line."

   For some time, McConnell's team has been in talks with Trump's campaign 
about a possible endorsement for the former president as the two seek to bridge 
their differences and unite the Republican Party ahead of the November 

   McConnell believes senators will need to be aligned with the top of the 
ticket -- likely Trump -- if they hope to win enough seats to take majority 
control of the Senate. While McConnell has said he would endorse the eventual 
nominee, he remains the highest GOP leader in Congress who has yet to endorse 

   When asked if this is the end of an era for his wing of the GOP, retiring 
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, once the Republican Party's presidential nominee 
himself, said, "The wing of the party that I represent is so small, it's the 
size of a Tyrannosaurus Rex leg -- arm."

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