A handful of GOP senators is weighing whether to force a fraught internal debate about their leadership’s future after Mitch McConnell’s second public freeze-up in a month.
Some rank-and-file Republicans have discussed the possibility of a broader conversation once senators return to Washington next week, according to a person directly involved in the conversations who confirmed them on condition of anonymity. Party leadership is not currently involved in those discussions, and nothing has been decided yet, this person added.
It takes just five Republican senators to force a special conference meeting, which is the most direct way to have a specific discussion about the minority leader after his public pause on Wednesday revived questions about his condition. But the Senate GOP also holds private lunches two or three times a week, giving members another forum for hashing out the direction of the party’s leadership — one that could forestall the need for a special confab.
And McConnell’s health is a touchy subject: The 81-year-old, the longest-serving party leader in Senate history, doesn’t like to discuss it. Even detractors of the Kentucky Republican’s leadership style are sensitive to the health issues he faces after falling in March and suffering a concussion.
Even so, the question now facing the GOP is whether McConnell’s health hastens a transition atop the conference leadership that has to happen eventually. McConnell squashed his first-ever challenge last fall from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) on a 37-10 vote.
If a special conference meeting doesn’t happen, the issue could be punted until after the 2024 election. However, a special meeting would undoubtedly draw more media attention that would amplify the risk of specifically broaching the touchy topic of McConnell’s leadership. And his own support may be relatively unchanged even after the two summer pauses.
“If a handful goes down that path, it will be a rerun of the last time,” said a GOP senator who was granted anonymity to discuss the issue, referring to Scott’s failed challenge.
McConnell has telegraphed no plans about when he plans to retire, either from the minority leader post or the Senate, though his spokesperson did say this summer that he intends to serve out his leadership term through 2024. That comment came after his first on-camera freeze-up, during a press availability in the Capitol in late July. His Senate term ends in 2026.
Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Conference Chair John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) are seen within the GOP conference as McConnell’s most likely successors at the helm. McConnell spoke to all three on Wednesday after his latest freeze at an event in Kentucky, as well as Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), according to people familiar with the conversations.
Scott has said he’s focused on his reelection and said on Wednesday that he expects McConnell to stay on as leader. He and others who voted against McConnell have all wished him well this summer after his two public episodes, which his staff attributed to lightheadedness.
McConnell’s sway in the party can’t be understated: In addition to his role as party leader, the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC is closely aligned with him and a huge player in Senate races. Thune, Barrasso and Cornyn are all sticking with him publicly and privately.
And September will be a great test of McConnell’s grip on his conference: The government is set to shut down in a month without action, the House and Senate don’t see eye-to-eye on spending levels and the Biden administration wants billions of dollars more for hurricane relief, Ukraine aid and border security.