McConnell’s Senate Grip Ends With GOP Splintered, Mob In Chamber
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, walks though the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Erin Scott/Bloomberg)

McConnell’s Senate Grip Ends With GOP Splintered, Mob In Chamber

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell will soon be thrust back into the minority, with his party fractured by the outgoing president and facing Democrats who have full control of government.

Wednesday’s storming of the Capitol by a mob loyal to President Donald Trump threatened the very institution where McConnell had methodically built his power over the course of seven terms. After rioters stormed the Senate chamber and lawmakers were whisked to secure locations, McConnell was angry and emotional after the Senate returned to work.

“The United States Congress has faced down a much greater threat than this unhinged crowd,” McConnell said after the Capitol was finally secured. “This failed insurrection only underscores how crucial the task before us is for our republic.”

McConnell’s rare display of emotion in his remarks, and Congress’s votes to uphold the result of November’s presidential vote, capped an awful day for the Kentucky Republican. Before the mob breached Capitol barricades, McConnell warned his GOP colleagues in an extraordinary speech that efforts to overturn the election results threatened a “death spiral” for American democracy. Still, eight Republican senators voted to block Biden’s electors from at least one state.

McConnell’s Senate Grip Ends With GOP Splintered, Mob In Chamber

Amid the chaos, news networks said Democrats won the second Georgia runoff -- a stunning result that will cost McConnell his majority and ability to set the agenda.

It took six weeks for McConnell to recognize Joe Biden as the president-elect, a period in which the conspiracy theories that fed Wednesday’s violence flourished. Trump’s obsession with his delusions of electoral fraud was blamed by Republicans for depressing turnout in Georgia, dividing the party and contributing to the defeat of incumbent Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.

Now McConnell, 78, faces an incoming Democratic majority determined to prevent him from throttling their agenda. The Kentucky Republican’s most notable legislative accomplishment of Trump’s term, the 2017 tax law, is now at risk. But his larger legacy -- a conservative remaking of the judiciary -- seems likely to endure, potentially for a generation.

He also will have some significant challenges managing his GOP caucus in a 50-50 Senate where incoming Vice President Kamala Harris will cast the tie-breaking vote. A handful of Republicans -- including Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine -- have a track record of working with Democrats on legislation. And a cluster of conservative Republicans who are eyeing possible presidential bids will be vying for attention and headlines and not necessarily looking to be team players.

Blocking Democrats

McConnell pledged before the Georgia election to do everything he can to block the Democrats’ agenda.

“These are not even Obama Democrats. They’re certainly not Clinton Democrats. This is a new level of radicalism that America hasn’t seen since since the socialists were more outspoken during the ’30s and the Great Depression,” McConnell said on the campaign trail during his own successful re-election bid this fall. “These people are dangerous, absolutely dangerous to our way of life. They need to be stopped.”

McConnell, however, will no longer control what comes up on the Senate floor, nor will Biden need his help every time he wants a nominee confirmed.

McConnell’s ability to obstruct the appointments and legislation of President Barack Obama is legendary. He thwarted numerous judicial nominees, including Obama’s Supreme Court pick of Merrick Garland in 2016, and for months in 2013 blocked his picks for regulatory agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Environmental Protection Agency.

He also opposed Obama’s efforts to stimulate the economy in response to the fiscal crisis in 2009 and helped to hold up a critical debt-ceiling hike as leverage to demand spending cuts in 2011.

McConnell, however, has previously touted his ability to cut deals during that period with Biden, then the vice president, the most notable being the “fiscal cliff” deal that made the expiring George W. Bush tax cuts permanent for about 99% of taxpayers. Some Democrats criticized it because it took away Obama’s most valuable leverage over Republicans without ending the spending straitjacket known as the sequester.

Cooperation

Biden has repeatedly asserted that he’d be able to find Republicans in the Senate and House who are willing to work across the aisle to pass his agenda, but that’s far from clear. Many items on Biden’s agenda -- from a new voting-rights law to a public health care option under Obamacare to a minimum wage hike -- have been blocked for years by McConnell.

McConnell will face an early test when Democrats, who will lead both chambers, look to pass a new expansive virus relief package on the heels of the $900 billion bipartisan package ushered through in December, and as they ultimately decide whether to keep the 60-vote threshold for ending filibusters. McConnell has urged Democrats not to “destroy the Senate” by doing so.

McConnell has served as Republican leader since 2006 and Senate Republicans re-elected him to the job just days after the 2020 elections, in which Republicans beat expectations for them to lose several seats. Although Democrats notched pick-ups in Colorado and Arizona, they fell short everywhere else, leaving the fate of the Senate in Georgia’s hands.

As the challenge turns to holding Republicans together under Biden, moderates are feeling their power. Romney, Murkowski, Collins and other more-centrist Republicans just scored a win after they formed a “gang” with moderate Democrats to revive the year-end pandemic relief package after talks between McConnell, the administration, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer stalled. The “gang” participants expressed interest in future efforts to set their own mark on the agenda.

And the threat of Republican defections looms among the ranks of Republicans weighing possible 2024 presidential bids. Even after Wednesday’s mob violence deflated most of the GOP’s enthusiasm for one last challenge to Biden’s win, Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri -- both possible White House contenders -- still led half a dozen GOP senators joining House Republicans to challenge Biden’s Electoral College win.

Meanwhile, McConnell’s ability to steer Republicans back to majority status after the 2022 midterms will be tested by the fact that their party will have to defend 20 GOP-held seats that year, compared to just 14 for Democrats. Even though Trump will no longer be in the White House, his hold on the party’s base risks alienating moderate voters Republicans will need if McConnell is to reclaim his title as majority leader.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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