Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) returned to the Capitol Monday after a five-and-a-half-week absence as his party faces an array of tough political problems: the expiration of the debt limit, a messy fight over the 2024 presidential nomination and divisions over abortion policy.
McConnell has been the GOP’s steady hand on the levers of power in Washington for more than a decade, and he now faces some of the biggest challenges of his career.
“It’s good to be back,” McConnell declared Monday in his first Senate floor speech in nearly six weeks, making a quip about the concussion he suffered last month. “Suffice it to say, this wasn’t the first time that being hardheaded has served me very well.”
The Senate leader’s biggest immediate challenge is to figure out how to help break the impasse between President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) over the debt limit, which is projected to expire this summer, perhaps as soon as June.
McConnell played a key role in brokering compromises to avoid national default in 2011 and 2021, and lawmakers are starting to look for him to step in after weeks of stalemate between Biden and McCarthy.
So far, he has stayed well away from the negotiations. But on Monday he took a step toward the fray by scolding Biden on the Senate floor for refusing to negotiate with McCarthy.
“President Biden does not get to stick his fingers in his ears and refuse to listen, talk or negotiate. And the American people know that. The White House needs to stop wasting time and start negotiating with the Speaker of the House,” he said.
Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) feel comfortable not engaging with McCarthy directly on the debt limit, betting that he’ll cave under increasing political and financial market pressure to avoid a default.
Schumer on Monday panned McCarthy’s proposal to extend the debt limit for only one year and package it with a variety of spending reforms as a “terrible idea.”
McConnell responded on the Senate floor by pointing out that “just a few years ago” Schumer had declared under a Republican president that the debt ceiling provides “ample opportunity for bipartisanship, not for one party jamming its choices down the throats of another.”
McConnell also faces an increasingly acrimonious and destructive battle between former President Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), the two frontrunners for the party’s presidential nomination in 2024.
McConnell was absent from Congress, recuperating from a fall at the Waldorf Astoria on March 8, when DeSantis stepped on a political landmine last month by declaring that the war in Ukraine was not a vital U.S. security interest.
He also missed the political circus that surrounded Trump’s indictment on 34 felony charges on April 4.
Trump’s attacks on DeSantis have become increasingly hard-hitting, as evidenced by a new ad funded by a Trump-allied PAC accusing the Florida governor of supporting cuts to Medicare and Social Security and suggesting he eats chocolate pudding with his fingers.
The Kentucky senator made clear after last year’s midterm election that he thought “chaos” and “negativity” associated with Trump was a drag on Senate Republican candidates because he turned off moderate and swing voters, but Trump’s popularity with Republican voters has only swelled over the past month.
Trump now leads DeSantis by nearly 29 points in an average of nationwide polls conducted since late March.
Trump’s presidential campaign has also gained more support in the Senate GOP conference after Sens. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) endorsed him this week, bringing Trump’s total number of Senate Republican endorsements to nine.
On the policy front, Republicans are divided over abortion, which is becoming a tricky litmus test for potential Republican hopefuls.
Former Vice President Pence and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) were grilled about their views about the death penalty for abortion providers and a national abortion ban, respectively, in recent interviews.
McConnell tried to keep abortion politics out of last year’s Senate races by declaring that there weren’t 60 votes in the Senate for passing any federal abortion ban.
Republican senators greeted McConnell’s return to the Senate with a sense of relief as it enters a five-week work period in Washington.
“I’m glad he’s back. I texted him earlier, said, ‘Look forward to seeing him here in the next 20 minutes,’” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) before the weekly Senate Republican leadership meeting, which McConnell hasn’t attended since early March.
Cornyn, an adviser to the Senate leadership team, said McConnell has unmatched experience navigating the toughest political challenges Congress encountered over the past decade and a half.
“He’s been here a long time and he’s navigated those challenges,” he said. “I don’t expect anything to change.”
McConnell’s absence had stoked some speculation about how much longer he plans to lead the Senate Republican conference and who is most likely to succeed him as leader.
But McConnell, who is 81 and was reelected in 2020, looked on Monday to be fully recovered and didn’t show any sign that he’s thinking about retiring before his term expires at the end of 2026.
“We’re truly lucky and blessed that we get to serve in this remarkable institution, represent our home states, and serve our country, and needless to say I’m very happy to be back,” he said in his return speech.
And Republican senators say McConnell has a lock on the top job for as long as he wants it.
Cornyn on Monday waved aside any notion that he’s trying to build political support to replace McConnell by having private lunches with Senate colleagues.
“I regularly have lunches with colleagues and help where I can,” he said, but quickly added: “I’m for Mitch McConnell being the majority leader as long as he can serve.”