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Is Wily Mitch McConnell Finally Out of Tricks?

McConnell off balance.
Photo: Kent Nishimura for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Beltway observers are understandably preoccupied with examining the spectacularly unproductive leadership of Speaker Mike Johnson, under whom the House has become a death pit for legislative activity. In just the last week, he deep-sixed a complex supplemental appropriations package that included a negotiated bipartisan border-security deal along with aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan; insisted on an effort to impeach Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that failed; and pushed a stand-alone aid-to-Israel measure that also failed.

All these failures reflected very poorly on the cohesiveness of Johnson’s party, and on the equally failed leadership of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, the wily old wire-puller who may be running out of tricks. McConnell was the principal author of the effort to talk House and Senate Republicans into accepting President Joe Biden’s foreign-aid requests in exchange for border-security measures conservatives have been pursuing for years. The Senate spun its wheels for months as a bipartisan group of its members worked out a border-security deal that Democrats (including Biden) accepted with clenched teeth (with strong dissents from progressives and immigrant advocates), even as support for it among Republicans declined. By the time the deal was finally announced, it had become so irrelevant to political realities that it didn’t get to the floor for a vote in either House. In the Senate itself Republicans lined up to blast McConnell for putting them through all this agony for nothing, as Politico reported:

McConnell, now nearing his 82nd birthday, is determined to fund the Ukrainian war effort, a push his allies have depicted as legacy-defining. But now that his party [is rejecting] a bipartisan trade of tougher border policies for war funding, his far-right critics are speaking out more loudly: Several held a press conference Tuesday where they denounced his handling of the border talks, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) calling on McConnell to step down. …

More and more of Senate Republicans’ internal strife is seeping out into public view, exposing years-old beefs that are still simmering. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) posted a fundraising link asking donors to “kill this border bill” in the middle of a closed-door GOP meeting on Monday and demanded “new leadership,” while Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) memed McConnell as Charlie Brown whiffing on an attempt to kick a football held by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.).

“I’ve been super unhappy since this started,” Johnson said in an interview. “Leader McConnell completely blew this.”

For McConnell, worse than the emboldenment of enemies in his own conference are the agents of this setback: the House members that senators traditionally hold in minimum regard, and former president Donald Trump, who has made the Senate leader a regular target of abuse. Together they unraveled ol’ Mitch’s complicated legislative handiwork and then took their fight right into the Senate — and won. McConnell is so committed, however, to Ukraine aid — deeply unpopular in MAGA-land — that he might cooperate in maneuvers that give Biden and Democrats a win on foreign aid without border concessions at all. That could erode his Republican support even more (as will his obligatory efforts to work with Democrats to keep the federal government open for the rest of this election year).

Looking ahead, it’s hard to envision this octogenarian (whose shaky health has repeatedly spurred speculation that a retirement is on the horizon) surviving a Trump comeback as president, assuming the former president maintains his long-standing vendetta against the lawmaker he routinely insults as a “Broken Old Crow” (not to mention the racist nickname he has hurled at McConnell’s wife, his own former Transportation secretary Elaine Chao: “Coco Chow”). But conversely, if Biden is reelected, and particularly if Republicans fail to flip control of the Senate in November, demands for a “fresh start” or “new leadership” will surely overcome McConnell’s determination to stay in his position. He can give way graciously and play a role in choosing a successor from his own circle, or risk losing his leadership to a nasty rival like Rick Scott, who launched an unsuccessful effort to topple him in 2022.

In retrospect, it’s reasonably clear that McConnell has been out of touch with the MAGA trend in the GOP for a good while, but bought himself a stay of execution with his brilliantly evil theft of a crucial Supreme Court appointment in 2016, augmented by a 2017 tax cut that pleased Republican donors. Now it looks like he is running out of tricks, and luck.


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