Mitch McConnell has a message for the rest of Washington: Quit expecting him to bail Congress out of every crisis.
The Senate minority leader, in speeches from the chamber floor and in news interviews, has tried to signal up and down Pennsylvania Avenue that he cannot dictate the outcome in the myriad negotiations taking place now.
Asked at an Oct. 31 news conference what he would support to keep the government funded, whether to include money for the defense of Israel and Ukraine, the Kentucky Republican grew exasperated.
“It’ll be up to the majority leader,” McConnell told reporters. He suggested Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the new House speaker, Mike Johnson (R-La.), needed to engage with each other. “I assume the majority leader and the speaker will have to reach some kind of agreement on that.”
A little later, facing more questions, he again deferred to Schumer and suggested there was not a big role for him as minority leader.
“I’m just speaking for myself,” McConnell added.
He has even appointed a working group of four Republicans — a cross section of GOP senators ideologically — to serve as the lead negotiators on a border policy prescription that is now the Republicans’ demanded trade-off in exchange for up to $60 billion in Ukraine defense funds.
This is not a new phenomenon for the GOP leader, who has periodically stepped back and let others cinch important deals. He did so in the spring when he stayed in the background as President Biden and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), then the House speaker, reached a debt-and-budget deal.
But this latest deferential stance follows an early fall in which McConnell — through the force of near-daily floor speeches in public and private discussions with his colleagues — tried to will Congress into a more aggressive posture in defending Ukraine.
And it comes after 17 years leading the Senate GOP, a historic reign of dealmaking and dealbreaking that has infuriated both Democrats and far-right conservatives over the years.
During the eight years of the Obama administration, McConnell served as the GOP’s break-the-glass closer, often working with then-Vice President Biden to avert some fiscal calamity. Yet he understood how and when to wield his clout for conservative causes, effectively claiming a GOP-appointed majority on the Supreme Court for the next generation.
But now, as the intraparty politics have turned so sharply away from that type of leadership, McConnell understands the limitations of his power.
At 81, he finds himself deeply at odds with his party’s ascendant isolationist and Trumpian wing, even as those policies and their candidates fall flat in elections and turned the House Republican majority into a fractious, ungovernable dumpster fire.
In Schumer, McConnell sees a partisan leader who takes glee at watching the internal GOP civil war continue without working quickly to avert the coming crises on Capitol Hill.
And he often rails against Biden’s advisers for taking a passive approach to talks on government funding and global security, particularly on providing more effective weapons to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s troops and not getting tough with China.
“On every front the Biden administration’s response has fallen short,” McConnell said in an Oct. 26 speech.
Adding insult to injury, McConnell’s protégé lost Kentucky’s gubernatorial race on Tuesday, while “Team Mitch” alumni won every other down-ballot statewide race. The governor’s race turned on the Democratic incumbent, Andy Beshear, carving up his opponent, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, as a far-right zealot with extreme abortion views, more in line with former president Donald Trump than the thoughtful conservative Cameron was believed to be when he was part of McConnell’s Senate staff.
McConnell’s closest friends recognize his past hold on the Senate GOP has slipped as the last three elections have brought in nearly 10 senators who answer first to Trump. These newcomers emboldened a small group of Republican antagonists, such as Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Mike Lee (Utah), who clashed with McConnell last decade to little avail. Now, up to a dozen or more Senate Republicans publicly second guess McConnell’s decisions, leaving him less able to wheel and deal like he so often did a decade ago during fiscal showdowns.
“He’s a master at the process,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who aspires to succeed McConnell whenever he steps aside. “But I think there is a little more individuality, shall we say, certainly in the Republican conference.”
That individuality has been on deep display as those staunch conservatives have worked to block McConnell’s repeated efforts to approve a massive security package to Ukraine.
His critics inside the GOP view McConnell as a weakened leader. He failed to attach about $6 billion in Ukraine funding to a stopgap bill in late September that kept the government open for almost seven weeks, until Friday’s looming deadline, but met resistance from most of the Republican caucus.
These critics view McConnell’s recent rhetorical focus on border security in exchange for Ukraine aid as a smart tactical maneuver — because had he not done so, he would have fallen behind the rest of the party.
“I think that is, he’s sensing where the conference is,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who has often fought with McConnell over the last decade, said Thursday.
Those close to the GOP leader noted that he tried to steer Biden administration officials away from requesting a small aid package for Ukraine six weeks ago and instead ask for one big bill later this year, only to begrudgingly go along with the ill-fated $6 billion request.
McConnell has talked about the need for border provisions ever since Biden sent a request for an emergency supplemental bill that included more than $100 billion for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and the southern border.
But many security hawks, Democrats and Republicans alike, worry that some of these demands from Johnson and his friends for tough border policy are just as much about sabotaging the overall security package.
Johnson outlined a proposal that would tie the release of funds to Ukraine to actual decreases in the southern border-crossing surge : “Any kind of border security measure that we attach to the Ukraine funding isn’t just strong language, isn’t just a policy change, but literally benchmarks that have to be met, tied to the actual release of the funds.”
McConnell has tried to lay out a pathway for other Republicans, as well as Democrats and Biden, to see how each of the four pieces of this security puzzle fit together: That Russia, China and Iran are aligned in the attack on Ukraine, which further aligns them in support of Hamas’s war with Israel.
“The challenges facing America and our allies today are not an a la carte menu of projects we can address at our leisure,” he said Wednesday.
But some Republicans continue to see the issues separately.
“Mitch, of course, has been unequivocal. And I agree with him that all these are connected with what’s happening in Israel, what’s happening in Russia, what’s happening in Asia. But there are others that have different opinions,” Cornyn said.
Cornyn, a veteran of many failed border-immigration negotiations for more than 15 years, sees this latest effort as more simplified than those previous bids. No one is discussing a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants, which is anathema to many conservatives.
“Virtually everybody in our conference believes that what’s happening at the border is unacceptable and that this is a point of maximum leverage,” Cornyn said.
But Democrats aren’t about to just accept a conservative border plan, not when they hold the Senate and the White House. “By tying Ukraine to border, Republicans are sadly making it harder — much harder — for us to help Ukraine in their fight against Putin,” Schumer said in a Tuesday speech.
All these disputes over Ukraine and the U.S.-Mexico border have made it very unlikely that the security package can be attached to whatever government funding plan passes by Friday. Plus, there’s now a chance that no such plan will pass and Congress could stumble its way into shutting down the government.
The new speaker expects to unveil this weekend a complicated funding bill, appeasing Johnson’s right flank, despite its bipartisan rejection in the Senate, and Schumer has yet to unveil a proposal of his own for keeping the government open.
Back home in Kentucky, McConnell’s political machine had big success and yet still couldn’t topple Beshear. The next big statewide race in the Bluegrass State is not slated until 2026, when McConnell’s term is up.
A variety of health issues prompted some questions about whether he would finish his term, but the octogenarian has repeatedly said that everything is fine health wise.
So far, at least for now, ambitious Kentucky Republicans are steering clear about whether they are angling for his seat.
“As a former McConnell intern and as a devoted supporter of Mitch McConnell and a loyal Mitch McConnell supporter, I’m going to support Leader McConnell as long as he wants,” Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr (R-Ky.) said.