As some call for his ouster, McConnell pushes back on GOP critics: ‘They’ve had their shot’


WASHINGTON (AP) — After months of negotiations and delays, the Senate on Thursday voted to move forward on legislation that would provide wartime aid to Ukraine and Israel. While far from a final vote, it was a momentary victory for Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, a strong supporter of the aid for Ukraine, in particular, despite a growing number in his party who have opposed it.

But the deep Republican divide over the aid, along with contentious debate over a border policy compromise with Democrats that was blocked by GOP senators earlier this week, has recently left a small group of senators in his conference fuming — and some even calling for his removal.

“WE NEED NEW LEADERSHIP — NOW,” Utah Sen. Mike Lee posted on X after the text of the border bill was released on Sunday evening. He added in another post, “Senate GOP leadership screwed this up — and screwed us.”

While McConnell’s job isn’t immediately in danger, and the vast majority of the conference still supports him, the growing anger from a small section of his caucus has rattled GOP senators and upended their regular private meetings, which have devolved into occasional yelling and frustration. Shortly before the vote Thursday to move forward on Ukraine aid, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley said McConnell isn’t listening to his members as a growing number of them have opposed the foreign assistance.

“He’s so focused on Zelenskyy,” Hawley vented to reporters afterward, speaking of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “He’s got bigger problems than Zelenskyy.”

In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, McConnell said he’s not going anywhere. “They’ve had their shot,” he said of his critics, referring to the 2022 leadership election, in which Florida Sen. Rick Scott challenged him and received 10 votes out of 49 Republicans. He would not say, though, whether he will run for leader again after the November election.

“I haven’t made any announcement on that yet,” McConnell said.

McConnell, 81, was first elected party leader in 2007 and is now the longest serving party leader in Congress. He has long enjoyed a fierce loyalty from the majority of his GOP conference, many of whom were elected because of his steady acumen on campaigns and benefitted politically from his focus on confirming conservative judges to the federal bench.

But the last several years have tested the party stalwart, as he has struggled with some health issues and as Donald Trump has remained a powerful force in the party and become the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination this year. His relationship with the former president has been strained, and the two haven’t talked since before the violent Jan. 6, 2001 attack on the Capitol by Trump’s supporters.

And the critics’ calls for a leadership change have grown louder, and more open, in recent weeks amid the divisions over whether to support the border compromise with Democrats and whether to support aid for Ukraine’s war against Russia.

McConnell says he’s seen it all before — internal angst amid the rise of the right-wing tea party almost 15 years ago, and yearly fights over spending, for example. “We’ve always had a lot of divisions,” he said.

“I think the fact that we’re in a 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.”

He added, “I’ve been there too many times on too many issues.”

In addition to Lee and Hawley, Scott and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have also verbally beaten up on McConnell in recent days.

At a press conference Tuesday to oppose the border proposal, Cruz blamed McConnell for Republicans’ failure to win back the majority in 2022 and for allowing Republican compromises with Democrats on the border and other issues.

“I think a Republican leader should actually lead this conference and advance the priorities of Republicans,” said Cruz, who has long sparred with the Kentucky senator.

McConnell responded later that day: “I think we can all agree that Sen. Cruz is not a fan,” he joked.

While McConnell’s critics have become louder and more pointed, there is little evidence at this point that the number of those saying they want a change in leadership has grown beyond the 10 members who voted against him in 2022. Calls to remove McConnell are “definitely not the majority view,” said Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Collins said Republican support for moving forward on the Ukraine legislation was “an affirmation of his leadership” and a positive signal to the world.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said McConnell “is our leader and he’s going to continue to be our leader. I mean, anybody here could call a conference and try to remove him. No one’s doing that.”

At the same time, three Republican senators are eyeing the job, whenever McConnell does decide to give it up. South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Republican, Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the No. 3 Republican, and Texas Sen. John Cornyn are all talked about as potential successors and have quietly started to position themselves among members.

Asked about the open criticism of McConnell, Cornyn called it a “bad trend.”

“I think when we’re divided it’s sort of gift to our political opponents,” Cornyn said.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., says he thinks some of the open rebellion started after the House ousted its Republican leader, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, in October.

“Now it’s stylish for people to bash the leader,” Tillis said. “Mitch is doing what Mitch has done the nine years I’ve worked with him. He’s steady.”

Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall said he supports McConnell: “I think he’s still the brightest political mind I’ve ever met.”

“We’re closer today as a family than we were a week or two ago,” Marshall said of the conference meetings. “You know what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I think this will make us stronger. But you know, we may have to have a little bit of anger yet to get through.”

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