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Mitch McConnell's fading influence on House Republicans can be traced back to Trump

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

House Republicans have had a rocky past year - throwing out their own speaker for the first time in history and struggling to pass even basic things like annual spending bills. Last week, that chaos spread to the Senate, with Republicans questioning the once rock-solid leadership of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell after a bipartisan border deal fell apart. One of McConnell's detractors, Missouri Republican Josh Hawley, had this sarcastic characterization of what played out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH HAWLEY: Oh, I think Republican leadership has shown they're a well-oiled machine. I mean, they just do great. I mean, it couldn't be improved upon - absolutely have it all together, you know, very, very impressive.

ELLIOTT: Ouch. NPR political correspondent Susan Davis joins us now to discuss the state of Senate leadership. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So is it fair to say that Mitch McConnell is politically weakened?

DAVIS: Yeah, you know, for sure. But this didn't just happen this past week. This has been happening ever since, really, Donald Trump was elected president back in 2016. His rise has weakened longtime establishment leaders like Mitch McConnell. And frankly, the Republican base doesn't like Mitch McConnell. Trump doesn't like Mitch McConnell. But Mitch McConnell has been able to hold Senate Republicans behind him through some pretty rocky years. He was further weakened in 2022, if you recall - 10 Republicans voted against him serving as their leader when they failed to win the majority in the midterm elections. And we can't ignore his recent health problems. His absence from the Senate and his public freezing episodes have certainly taken a toll, at least on the perception of his strength within the party.

ELLIOTT: So how much influence is Trump on Senate Republicans, and is that complicating McConnell's ability to get things done?

DAVIS: You know, it depends on the issue, but certainly on the two issues of the day, both border security and aiding Ukraine, he is at odds with Donald Trump, and that has weakened him. More senators would like to be aligned with Donald Trump going into this election in their own primaries versus Mitch McConnell. Trump doesn't want to give Joe Biden a win on the border, and he just fundamentally opposes more money for Ukraine. McConnell himself has spent months trying to rally support within the party for action on Ukraine. He's been rolled on it in the past, and frankly, it's still unclear if he's going to be able to get the votes to get it done.

ELLIOTT: So we all watched all the drama in the House with the leadership change there. Is there a possibility that McConnell could face some sort of a challenge to his leadership here amid Congress?

DAVIS: Almost certainly not - you would need a majority of Senate Republicans to say they wanted to reopen their leadership slate. They are not there. I don't think any Senate Republican looked at what happened in the House as something that was good for the party or for their internal party relations, not to mention the fact you just can't beat someone with no one. And there's almost no clear alternative to McConnell right now. Leaderships do happen, though, right after Election Day. So Republicans are going to have to decide this question again in November. Publicly, McConnell has said that he does plan to serve out his term, which runs through 2026. But it's not clear whether he's going to stand for a leader again in the next Congress. But keep in mind, he's already earned a place in history. He's already the longest-serving Senate leader of either party and the longest-serving senator in Kentucky history.

ELLIOTT: McConnell has been the Senate Republicans' top election tactician for more than two decades now. How involved do you expect him to be in this year's campaigns?

DAVIS: Yeah, and this is something that's really important to keep in mind despite all the turmoil that's been playing out. Republicans are still heavily favored to win control of the Senate this November. And it is fair to say that no one has invested more in winning Senate majorities than McConnell. His allied groups are once again expected to put hundreds of millions of dollars into these swing state races. But yeah, he's not a popular figure. You're not going to see him out there publicly campaigning for candidates. He's always been much more of a backroom player. The big question here, beyond McConnell's health, is if Trump wins, you know, it'd be really unlikely Trump would want to see McConnell stay on as leader. And that could weigh significantly on how Republican senators look at who they want to be in their party leadership.

ELLIOTT: So as we look to the future, if not McConnell, who?

DAVIS: Well, you know, Senate leadership races tend to be peaceful affairs. The two parties both usually decide who they want to lead them, and that's usually done by acclamation. There hasn't been a truly competitive race for Senate leader since the '90s. But, you know, Trump's Republican Party doesn't lend itself to peaceful transitions all the time. There are three names you hear the most when you ask about the future of the Senate Republican leadership. It's the three Johns - that would be Cornyn of Texas, Thune of South Dakota, and Barrasso of Wyoming. They're all men. They're all white. They're all current or past members of party leadership. And they all come from safe conservative seats where Donald Trump is wildly popular and likely to win this year.

ELLIOTT: So stay tuned. That's NPR political correspondent Susan Davis. Thank you, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.