McConnell was comfortably reelected as the No. 1 Senate Republican last month, overcoming the first challenge to his leadership in 15 years amid infighting over the party’s disappointing performance in the midterm elections. Most Senate Republicans are backing McConnell despite the surrender of a Pennsylvania seat to the Democrats and failure to recapture the majority.
It’s a vote of confidence in the Kentucky Republican as their chief negotiator in talks with President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on spending and a range of contentious policies.
“Mitch McConnell is the thing keeping the party together in this place. He’s done a great job negotiating with unreasonable Democrats,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), a sentiment echoed by other Republican senators who spoke to the Washington Examiner.
“I think the success of the NDAA is the first example of Mitch’s superior negotiating, and it’s particularly when he knows when these members have his back and he has our back,” Cramer added, referring to talks over the National Defense Authorization Act. “I think you’re watching them onstage now on the appropriations process, insisting on no further nondefense discretionary spending.”
However, McConnell does not have a free hand to cut deals and avoid confrontation with the White House and Senate Democrats that Republicans granted him in the past, including after past electoral disappointments. Republican insiders are predicting McConnell will have to pick more fights with the opposition on thorny areas than he might prefer, possibly on government funding and raising the debt ceiling, to keep sparks of discontent in his conference from turning into a conflagration.
With 51 votes once the 118th Congress convenes in January, Senate Democrats are boasting about what they will do with their newfound investigatory and subpoena powers. But most legislation will require 60 votes, meaning at least nine Senate Republicans are needed to get things done, a dynamic that gives McConnell both negotiating leverage and the headache of addressing the demands of the insurgent right flank of his conference.
This week, Senate Republicans are meeting in a closed-door session demanded by half a dozen of them who are pressuring McConnell and the rest of their colleagues to pursue more confrontation and more aggressive negotiating tactics in talks with Biden and the Democrats over the next two years. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), among the group that called the meeting, is expected to run through a PowerPoint presentation, although the topics it will cover are unclear.
Besides Johnson, Republicans itching for change inside the conference include Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Braun (R-IN), Mike Lee (R-UT), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Rick Scott (R-FL), the outgoing National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman who challenged McConnell for the conference’s top leadership post. These half-dozen senators have dubbed their working group the “breakfast club.” They have so far been unclear about what they want from McConnell beyond more resistance to Biden and Senate Democrats.
“We just went through a very disappointing electoral cycle. I don’t think the response to that should be business as usual,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said, outlining the main complaint of the 10 Senate Republicans who opposed McConnell for leader in a secret-ballot election held Nov. 16, eight days after the midterm elections.
“I don’t presume to have the answers for what the changes should be,” Rubio added. “But the one thing I’m pretty certain of is that you don’t come back from a disappointing cycle like this so we can keep doing things the way we were doing things before.”
Until Election Day, Republicans were predicting a red wave would sweep them to victory in the House and Senate, declaring voters were poised to rebuke Biden over dissatisfaction with skyrocketing inflation and rising crime. Scott projected GOP Senate pickups of up to five seats. Instead, the party lost gubernatorial contests, flipped barely enough seats to win the House majority, and lost ground in a 50-50 Senate Democrats control via Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote.
McConnell allies blamed Scott for mismanaging the NRSC and not doing enough to stop the elevation of bad candidates in Senate primaries, and Scott blamed McConnell for compromising with the Democrats on critical legislation and refusing to propose a specific governing agenda to run on in the midterm elections. The feud, egged on by former President Donald Trump, led Scott to mount a long-shot run against McConnell for leader. He lost 37-10.
As suggested, McConnell’s grip on the conference is firm.
Plus, the map of Senate seats up for election in 2024 is favorable for the Republicans. Twenty Democratic-held seats are up, as are the three held by independents who caucus with the Democrats. Just 10 seats controlled by the Republicans are up. In a related matter, the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with McConnell and run by his confidants, spent $280 million in the 2022 election cycle and came under very little criticism.
Meanwhile, McConnell’s allies emphasize that his motivations for compromising with Democrats these past two years were about protecting the legislative filibuster.
Those deals included GOP support for infrastructure spending and legislation to facilitate the construction of semiconductor manufacturing plants. McConnell also declined to block Democrats from raising the debt ceiling, all in a bid to ensure centrists like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) would not vote to gut the 60-vote threshold needed for passing most legislation. With Republicans set to take over the House, that concern is now moot.
“The detractors, the ‘breakfast club,’ will create noise and some headaches but still don’t have real power or a leading voice to marshal that group into anything constructive,” a veteran Republican operative said.
There’s some evidence McConnell has already begun drawing a harder line, which other GOP insiders believe is, in fact, a result of internal pressure.
During a classified briefing last week on Ukraine, McConnell warned top Democrats and Biden administration officials he would not accept their spending in an omnibus bill that surpassed the president’s previous request, according to reporting from Punchbowl. McConnell said in the meeting that Republicans “weren’t going to pay a ransom” by trading more domestic spending for a boost in military funding in either the defense or government funding package.
Some Republican insiders believe the tough talk is a direct response to complaints from inside the conference that there has been too much deal-making with Biden and the Democrats. Although those grips are coming from a minority of GOP senators, they have not faded since conference leadership elections in mid-November. McConnell, always adept at reading the mood of his members, appears to be doing so again now.
“He always has been inclined to shun the drama. He’s going to have to pick a few fights,” said a Republican lobbyist in Washington, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. “If he takes that approach, he will do it far more measured and strategic than the crazies. He’s got a simmering issue he can’t ignore, even if Rick Scott isn’t the answer.”