Mitch McConnell will step down as the Senate Republican leader in November

Mitch McConnell, who became a Senator in 1985, will serve out his term, which ends in January 2027

Updated - February 28, 2024 11:53 pm IST

Published - February 28, 2024 11:50 pm IST - WASHINGTON

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walks past members of the media after delivering remarks on the Senate floor, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Mr. McConnell will step down as Senate Republican leader in November.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walks past members of the media after delivering remarks on the Senate floor, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Mr. McConnell will step down as Senate Republican leader in November. | Photo Credit: AP

Mitch McConnell, the longest-serving Senate leader in history who maintained his power in the face of dramatic convulsions in the Republican Party for almost two decades, will step down from that position in November. He represents Kentucky in the Senate.

Mr. McConnell, who turned 82 last week, was set to announce his decision on February 28 in the well of the Senate, a place where he looked in awe from its back benches in 1985 when he arrived and where he grew increasingly comfortable in the front row seat afforded the party leaders.

Also read: Mitch McConnell | Trump’s ‘political hack’

“One of life’s most underappreciated talents is to know when it’s time to move on to life’s next chapter,” he said in prepared remarks obtained by The Associated Press. “So I stand before you today ... to say that this will be my last term as Republican leader of the Senate.”

His decision punctuates a powerful ideological transition underway in the Republican Party, from Ronald Reagan’s brand of traditional conservatism and strong international alliances, to the fiery, often isolationist populism of former President Donald Trump.

Mr. McConnell, said he plans to serve out his Senate term, which ends in January 2027, “albeit from a different seat in the chamber.” His aides said that the announcement about the leadership post was unrelated to his health. The Kentucky senator had a concussion from a fall last year and two public episodes where his face briefly froze while he was speaking.

“As I have been thinking about when I would deliver some news to the Senate, I always imagined a moment when I had total clarity and peace about the sunset of my work,” he said in his prepared remarks. “A moment when I am certain I have helped preserve the ideals I so strongly believe. It arrived today.”

The Senator had been under increasing pressure from the restive, and at times hostile wing of his party that has aligned firmly with Mr. Trump. The two have been estranged since December 2020, when Mr. McConnell refused to abide Mr. Trump’s claim that the election of Democrat Joe Biden as president was the product of fraud.

But while Mr. McConnell's critics within the GOP conference had grown louder, their numbers had not grown appreciably larger, a marker of McConnell’s strategic and tactical skill and his ability to understand the needs of his fellow Republican Senators.

Mr. McConnell gave no specific reason for the timing of his decision, which he has been contemplating for months, but he cited the recent death of his wife's youngest sister as a moment that prompted introspection. “The end of my contributions are closer than I’d prefer,” he said.

Reagan’s influence

But his remarks were also light at times as he talked about the arc of his Senate career. He noted that when he arrived in the Senate, “I was just happy if anybody remembered my name.” During his campaign in 1984, when Mr. Reagan was visiting Kentucky, the president called him “Mitch O’Donnell.”

Mr. McConnell endorsed Mr. Reagan’s view of America’s role in the world and the Senator has persisted in the face of opposition, including from Mr. Trump, that Congress should include a foreign assistance package that includes $60 billion for Ukraine.

“I am unconflicted about the good within our country and the irreplaceable role we play as the leader of the free world," Mr. McConnell said.

Against long odds he managed to secure 22 Republican votes for the package now being considered by the House.

“Believe me, I know the politics within my party at this particular moment in time. I have many faults. Misunderstanding politics is not one of them," he said. "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. For as long as I am drawing breath on this earth I will defend American exceptionalism.”

Strained relation with Trump

Mr. Trump has pulled the party hard to the ideological right, questioning longtime military alliances such as NATO, international trade agreements and pushing for a severe crackdown on immigration, all the while clinging to the falsehood that the election was stolen from him in 2020.

They worked together in Mr. Trump’s first term, remaking the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary in a far more conservative image, and on tax legislation. But there was also friction from the start, with Mr. Trump frequently sniping at the Senator.

Their relationship has essentially been over since Mr. Trump refused to accept the results of the Electoral College. But the rupture deepened dramatically after the riots on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Mr. McConnell assigned blame and responsibility to Mr. Trump and said that he should be held to account through the criminal justice system for his actions.

Also read: Donald Trump ‘lit that fire’ of Capitol insurrection: January 6 report

Mr. McConnell’s critics insist he could have done more, including voting to convict Mr. Trump during his second impeachment trial. Mr. McConnell did not, arguing that since Mr. Trump was no longer in office, he could not be subject to impeachment.

Rather than fade from prominence after the Capitol riot, Mr. Trump continued to assert his control over the party, and finds himself on a clear glide path to the Republican nomination. Other members of the Republican Senate leadership have endorsed Trump. McConnell has not, and that has drawn criticism from other Republican senators.

How McConnell set up his power base

McConnell’s path to power was hardly linear, but from the day he walked onto the Senate floor in 1985 and took his seat as the most junior Republican Senator, he set his sights on being the party leader. What set him apart was that so many other Senate leaders wanted to run for president. Mr. McConnell wanted to run the Senate. He lost races for lower party positions before steadily ascending, and finally became party leader in 2006 and has won nine straight elections. He most recently beat back a challenge led by Sen. Rick Scott of Florida last November.

Mr. McConnell built his power base through a combination of care and nurturing of his members, including understanding their political imperatives. After seeing the potential peril of a rising Tea Party, he also established a super political action committee, The Senate Leadership Fund, which has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in support of Republican candidates.

Despite the concerns about his health, colleagues have said in recent months that they believe he has recovered. Mr. McConnell was not impaired cognitively but did have some additional physical limitations. “I love the Senate,” he said in his prepared remarks. “It has been my life. There may be more distinguished members of this body throughout our history, but I doubt there are any with more admiration for it.”

But, he added, "Father Time remains undefeated. I am no longer the young man sitting in the back, hoping colleagues would remember my name. It is time for the next generation of leadership.”

There would be a time to reminisce, he said, but not today. “I still have enough gas in the tank to thoroughly disappoint my critics and I intend to do so with all the enthusiasm which they have become accustomed.”

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