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
"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
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."