Mitch McConnell stepping down as Senate Republican leader in November

Associated Press | 2/29/2024, 6 p.m.
Long before Sen. Mitch McConnell surprised colleagues Wednesday announcing he would step down as the Republican leader this fall, he ...
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky walks off the Senate floor after speaking Wednesday at the Capitol in Washington. Mr. McConnell says he’ll step down as Senate Republican leader in November. The 82-year-old lawmaker is the longest-serving Senate leader in history. He’s maintained his power in the face of dramatic changes in the Republican Party. Photo from AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

WASHINGTON - 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. Mr. Trump was easily becoming the party’s frontrunner for a do-over election with President Biden. And, having largely recovered his health from a devastating fall last year, Sen. McConnell was back on his game.

In assembling top aides in January to disclose his intentions, ahead of his 82nd birthday, Sen. 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,” Sen. McConnell said in a speech delivered midday Wednesday from the Senate floor.

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.”

He said: “I have many faults, misunderstanding politics is not one of them.” Though the aid is still tied up in the House.

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

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

Like the House, where Republicans ousted Kevin McCarthy as speaker last 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 Sen. 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 Ohio.

There was a time when few senators would dare criticize Sen. 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 Sen. 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 Sen. McConnell a standing ovation during a private luncheon. Even some of Sen. 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 Sen. 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,” Sen. Rubio said. “And that’s obviously playing out in the halls of Congress as well.”

And increasingly emboldened detractors piled on Wednesday saying Sen. 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.