Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is pushing back on his critics in the Senate GOP conference, declaring they had their chance to replace him as leader after the 2022 midterm election.
McConnell told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday that he doesn’t plan to step down as leader anytime soon, despite sharp criticism of his handling of a Ukraine funding and border security package, which most GOP senators rejected earlier in the week.
“They had their shot,” he said in response to calls by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) for new leadership of the Senate GOP conference. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) mounted an unsuccessful challenge to McConnell last year.
But McConnell, who will turn 82 on Feb. 20, declined to comment on his plans for running for re-election as leader after this year’s election.
“I haven’t made any announcement on that yet,” he said.
McConnell’s current Senate term will end in January of 2027.
He downplayed the recent turmoil in his conference, noting: “We’ve always had a lot of divisions.”
And he said those divisions are being magnified by the politics of the presidential election and the intense feelings of his colleagues about immigration and border security.
“I think the fact that we’re in presidential election, the fact that the border is a huge issue to both sides elevated this debate,” McConnell said. “But from my perspective, it’s just another tough situation we’ve been in a lot of times over the last 18 years.”
McConnell alluded to his history of clashing with Cruz going back to 2013 when the Texas senator demanded that Congress not fund the government without repealing the Affordable Care Act.
The drama resulted in a 16-day government shutdown which McConnell said at the time Republicans should avoid in the future.
“There is no education in the second kick of a mule,” McConnell said at the time.
McConnell also clashed with members of his conference in the fall of 2021 when he voted for a one-time exception to Senate procedure to allow Senate Democrats to pass legislation to raise the debt limit with a simple majority.
By enabling Democrats to raise the debt limit without needing Republican votes to overcome a filibuster, McConnell argued the Democratic Party and Joe Biden would own the decision to pile on more debt.
McConnell last year became the longest-serving party leader in Senate history but he faced a challenge to his leadership tenure from Scott after the 2022 election, in which Republicans suffered a net loss of one Senate seat, shrinking their majority to 49 seats.
Cruz, Lee and other Republicans who this week criticized McConnell’s handling of funding for Ukraine and a bipartisan border security deal supported Scott’s leadership challenge.
McConnell won the race handily, 37 to 10.
The veteran Kentucky senator downplayed the attempt to oust him as an opportunity to have “a good discussion about what happened in the election and what happens in the next election.”
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue to serve,” he said at the time.
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