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Why Mitch McConnell’s return to the Senate matters

In a recent tweet, McConnell pushed back on speculation that he’s planning to step down.

Mich McConnell in the Capitol with crowds of reporters around him.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell departs after speaking at a press conference following a weekly policy luncheon on Capitol Hill on March 7, 2023, in Washington, DC.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Next week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will return to the upper chamber after spending five weeks away recovering from a concussion and fall. His return comes as Republicans and Democrats have grappled with narrow margins in the Senate, and will provide the GOP a much-needed vote. Additionally, he’ll arrive amid speculation about whether he intends to retire soon, documented by a Spectator report this week.

McConnell’s return will bolster Republicans’ numbers in the 51-49 Senate, and sends a decisive message that he doesn’t intend to relinquish his seat or leadership role, at least not at this time.

“No, he’ll be back Monday,” a McConnell aide told the Daily Signal following a question about whether McConnell intends to retire before his term expires in 2027. McConnell also posted a statement on Thursday announcing that he’s “looking forward to returning.”

McConnell’s absence came as both parties have faced absences — and tighter margins on the Senate floor as a result. On the Democratic side, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has also been absent since February recovering from a case of shingles, and Sen. John Fetterman is also set to return next week, after receiving a roughly two-month treatment for clinical depression.

These absences have added to scrutiny of lawmakers’ ages and whether older senators are fit to serve. Because McConnell has been away for a longer period, and because there wasn’t significant information provided about his condition at times, questions like those reported in the Spectator have begun to proliferate as well.

Such speculation has put a spotlight on the lack of a clear successor to McConnell — as well as on the fractured nature of the Senate GOP conference and the Republican Party as a whole. Without McConnell’s pre-Trump style of conservatism leading the way, it’s not clear what type of politics the Senate GOP conference would go on to embrace.

“It would be a major shift. He’s the longest-serving Republican leader. There’s certainly a power vacuum that would open up,” says Jessica Taylor, a Senate expert at Cook Political Report.

Two things to watch on McConnell’s return

First, McConnell’s return has practical implications, giving Republicans an additional vote. That bolsters Republican numbers slightly when it comes to voting against Democratic nominees they may oppose as well as when it comes to approving disapproval resolutions that try to roll back Biden administration rules. With Feinstein out, and Fetterman and McConnell back, Democrats will have 50 votes to Republicans’ 49 (assuming independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema continues to vote with Democrats).

House Republicans have passed a series of disapproval resolutions under the Congressional Review Act, which gives Congress power to undo rules the administration approves if simple majorities in both chambers vote to do so. The president still has to sign these resolutions for them to take effect, however. Recently, Republicans have been able to pass a handful of these resolutions in the Senate by peeling off Democrats as well.

At the end of March, the Senate narrowly passed a CRA resolution overturning a Biden administration rule that expanded the scope of water regulations 53-43, with four Democrats and one independent joining 48 Republicans to back the measure. Republicans didn’t wind up needing McConnell’s vote for the measure, though every vote helps give them more leeway when the margins are so close. Being down one member can make those votes tougher since Republicans have a 49-member minority to begin with. Ultimately, Biden is expected to veto the CRA.

“I wish we had one more vote on some of the CRAs coming up,” Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS) told Axios in March. With McConnell’s return, they will.

In addition to providing an important vote, McConnell’s return also reaffirms his role as leader after a Spectator report stated that preparations were being made for his retirement. That report noted that other GOP lawmakers were doing outreach to members of the conference in an attempt to prepare for a potential leadership election. In McConnell’s absence, his deputies — including Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD) and GOP Conference Chair John Barrasso (R-WY) — have helped steer the conference alongside the GOP leader’s staff.

One Republican senator alluded to some uncertainty, however, telling The Hill in mid-March: “It’s kind of a state of limbo. Nobody really knows what the situation is and nobody knows how long he’ll be gone. … A couple of folks have said, ‘Who’s in charge right now.’”

McConnell became the longest-serving Senate party leader earlier this year, surpassing former Democratic Sen. Mike Mansfield, who had served for 16 years. He’s been integral to Republican efforts to stack the courts when they were in the majority, and he’s known for shielding his members both from critiques and from tough votes on issues like health care. In recent years, McConnell has also been associated with calling Trump out for the January 6 riot, though he’s said he would still back the former president if he becomes the Republican nominee in 2024.

Were he to retire, Senate Republicans would face a major question about leadership as well as the direction of the party. More Trumpy members have been elected in recent years as the Republican Party as a whole has also normalized positions like election denialism. McConnell, as a leader, has been more of an establishment figure who’s pushed back against such claims, clashing with Trump at times. Depending on who would potentially succeed him, it’s possible they would be interested in taking a different approach.

“The next Senate majority leader on that side of the aisle … may be much more sympathetic to a newer, less democratic vision,” says David Barker, a government professor and congressional expert at American University.

Taylor notes that McConnell has been an important tactician for Senate campaigns as well, and his influence would be missed there, too. In the latest cycle, McConnell cautioned Republicans against nominating problematic candidates in the primary who’d have a tougher time winning the general election. Those candidates, including former football player Herschel Walker in Georgia, wound up costing the GOP key battleground seats.

If McConnell retired, Senate Republicans would likely have to hold a leadership election to figure out who the new minority leader would be. Earlier this year, there were signs of division within the caucus, when 10 Republicans voted for Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) instead of McConnell. Scott has framed himself as a chief Trump ally and could potentially pick up more support if McConnell retired. Some of the potential successors are other members of Republican leadership including Thune and Barrasso, as well as Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).

“The three more likely candidates to succeed him are the three Johns, as I call them,” says Taylor.

It seems, however, like the GOP conference won’t have to confront that question just yet.

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