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STEVE PAVLICK: Is This The End Of The Road For Mitch McConnell?

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Steve Pavlick Partner & Head of Policy at Renaissance Macro and a former Treasury official.
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has had three “health episodes” in public over the last six months and many are wondering how many of these “episodes” have happened behind the scenes. Last week McConnell appeared unable to respond to a question from a reporter in Kentucky about whether he planned to run for re-election in 2026. It was eerily reminiscent of a scene in front of reporters on Capitol Hill last month when McConnell similarly froze. It is hard to imagine a worse place to have “health episodes” than in a press conference, particularly one asking an elderly politician, 81 years old, about his future re-election plans. Earlier this year, McConnell suffered a concussion after a fall at a fundraiser. To the public, the increased frequency and severity suggests that McConnell’s health is deteriorating at a fast clip.

Bad Timing 

The Senate is scheduled to return from its recess next week, with the House returning the following week. Internal Republican divisions, most notably in the House, have already increased the odds of a shutdown when funding for the current fiscal year expires at the end of the month. Uncertainty over McConnell’s leadership prospects will only further complicate an already messy situation, particularly if the fiscal conservatives in the House and Senate seek to take advantage of the situation. 

McConnell has a reputation for supporting larger spending packages by including pet priorities of senators to buy off their votes. McConnell has also aligned himself with the White House and congressional Democrats by supporting more aid for Ukraine and marking up the 12 annual appropriations bills to the higher levels agreed to by Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as part of their debt limit agreement. 

Questions about McConnell’s health and future will make it more difficult for him to corral Republican Senate votes needed to address the laundry list of contentious issues that Congress tends to punt until the yearend spending package. Senate Republicans jockeying to replace McConnell could also advocate for different approaches to the yearend legislative package as they court their colleagues.

Bad For Biden 

The optics of another octogenarian politician struggling to do his job is not good news for the 80-year-old Biden. Biden often responds to questions about his age and cognitive ability with “watch me.” According to polls, most people are concerned about what they see. A recent AP/NORC poll found that 77% believe age is a more significant issue for Biden than Donald Trump, age 77. This includes 69% of Democrats. What should be concerning for Democrats is that despite White House attempts to limit Biden’s public appearance to scripted settings, concerns about his age are increasing because voters are witnessing his cognitive decline. (RELATED: SUZANNE DOWNING: Father Time Comes For The Gerontocracy)

If Senate Republicans replaced Mitch McConnell as their leader, that would be a political benefit for Donald Trump. McConnell and Trump were never close but were able to work together. Their relationship reached a breaking point when McConnell blamed Trump for January 6th. Despite his rhetoric, McConnell was not exactly a profile in political courage when he voted to acquit Trump after being unable to convince Senate Republicans to support a conviction.

Republicans have lost Senate seats under McConnell’s leadership during the last two elections. McConnell would place more of the blame on Trump for backing poor candidates. More Republican voters appear to be listening to Trump and not McConnell, and a public feud between the two is not a good look for someone who wants to be the party’s Senate leader. Republicans have three pickup opportunities in 2024 in three states held by Democrats that Trump won in 2020 in MT, OH, and WV. 

McConnell’s effectiveness as the Senate Republican leader was arguably at its peak during the Obama presidency. McConnell was able to stymie much of Obama’s progressive policy pursuits and, in the process, led Republicans to capture control of the Senate. Under Trump, McConnell confirmed many judges, but he could not deliver the promised Republican repeal of Obamacare. 

Under Biden, McConnell has been outmaneuvered by his Democratic counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), on several high-profile issues. In 2021, McConnell mishandled the debt limit situation by giving Schumer two high-profile wins after caving twice on his demand that Democrats use reconciliation to address the debt limit. McConnell also backed Biden’s $1.75T bipartisan infrastructure package. Later, in 2022, McConnell provided the needed Republican votes for the bipartisan CHIPS Act, believing that it would prevent Democrats from passing their partisan climate bill. Hours later, Schumer and Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) unveiled their partisan climate bill and passed it shortly thereafter. 

McConnell’s positions were opposed by a vast majority of his conference, which is not desirable for someone in leadership. Moreover, the growing string of high-profile failures has raised questions among Senate Republicans as to whether McConnell had lost his fastball. His recent “health episodes” will only raise more questions.

Steve Pavlick is a Partner & Head of Policy at Renaissance Macro and a former Treasury official.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.

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