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What Mitch McConnell leaves behind

He normalized obstruction but sometimes made the Senate work.

- March 2, 2024
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.(cc) Gage Skidmore.

Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) won’t seek reelection as Senate Republican leader once his term as GOP leader ends with the November elections. Seventeen years at the helm, McConnell is the longest serving Senate party leader – edging out the previous record-holder, Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), by a single year. Although he’s stepping away from party leadership, McConnell says he’ll continue to represent Kentucky until his six-year Senate term ends in January 2027.

How should we remember him? McConnell’s conflicts with former President Trump and his slipping traction with the Trumpian wing of the Senate GOP conference – alongside McConnell’s failing health – get the lion’s share of attention from the media these days. (That probably helps explain why McConnell’s reputation is so under water with Republican voters while Democratic voters seem to like their congressional leaders.) But don’t lose sight of how McConnell as leader reshaped the ways and means of the Senate – alongside the tenor of the federal courts.

Here are three takeaways from McConnell’s years at the helm.

Normalizing obstruction

As minority leader, McConnell played a key role in normalizing the “60-vote Senate” – the expectation that a Senate majority must always lock down supermajority support to advance its agenda. A simple majority vote of senators typically suffices to pass most measures and motions. But first the Senate must cut off debate. And that’s where the Senate’s 60-vote “cloture” rule comes in. If even a single senator objects to ending debate, a majority must first muster 60 votes for cloture before the senators can vote on the pending matter.

McConnell alone did not create the “60-vote Senate.” But as political scientist Steve Smith argues, McConnell played a critical role as minority leader between 2007 and 2014 in normalizing the need for 60 votes. Cloture motions were already on the rise before his GOP colleagues elected him leader. But their incidence jumped when McConnell took the reins. Most importantly, by minimizing (and often eliminating) GOP defections, McConnell weaponized cloture into a tool of minority party obstruction. Requiring 60 votes – and the majority often failing to get them – became in Smith’s words a “nearly standard operating principle.” 

Conceptually, demanding 60 votes might moderate a majority’s policy demands, making bipartisan deals more likely. But McConnell made plain that his primary goal was to make President Obama a “one-term president.” McConnell failed, but his strategy of rarely giving an inch heightened Senate partisanship, stoked the Senate parliamentary arms race, put many bipartisan deals with Democrats and Obama out of reach, and might have helped to propel McConnell and the GOP back to power in 2015.

Stacking the federal bench

McConnell as majority leader played a significant role in shifting U.S. federal courts to the right. Despite claims that McConnell is an “institutionalist” who cares about protecting the traditions and authority of the Senate, McConnell turned the thumbscrews on the minority – fueling more partisan battles over who sits on the Supreme Court bench.

Most notable was McConnell’s response to the death of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia early in 2016. McConnell and the GOP successfully blocked consideration of Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy. McConnell did so by conjuring a new norm to justify the blockade: He fabricated the claim that the Senate has a “longstanding tradition” not to consider presidents’ nominees to the Supreme Court in a presidential election year. That wasn’t true then, and it remains untrue today.

Having saved the vacant seat for President Trump to fill, McConnell turned the screws on the minority so that Republicans could confirm Trump’s pick of Judge Neil Gorsuch without needing Democrats’ votes to clear the 60-vote hurdle. How so? McConnell led the GOP to ban filibusters of Supreme Court nominations. Of course, just years before, McConnell had excoriated Democrats and their leader, Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for banning filibusters of trial and appellate court nominees.

McConnell and the GOP also rushed Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court in record time, just days before the 2020 presidential election, making Barrett the first Supreme Court nominee since 1869 confirmed without any support from the opposition. As McConnell boasted, “A lot of what we’ve done over the last four years will be undone sooner or later by the next election. They [Democrats] won’t be able to do much about this for a long time to come.” Confirming scores of young, mostly white male conservative jurists to judgeships through the federal courts is surely McConnell’s most durable legacy.

Always seeking power 

McConnell’s favorite name for himself is the Grim Reaper. Given how aggressively McConnell exploited the rules to block Democratic policy priorities and nominees, McConnell thought the nickname was apt. 

But Republican senators under McConnell’s leadership did sometimes go to the bargaining table with Democrats and came away with seemingly big policy deals. Mind you, McConnell-led obstruction backed by his party colleagues doomed many big issues to stalemate over the course of McConnell’s leadership. 

But occasionally McConnell seemed to greenlight GOP cooperation with Democratic negotiators. Under Obama, that included overhauling No Child Left Behind and renewing transportation programs. Under Biden, more pragmatic Republicans cooperated with Democrats to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, spur manufacturing (including revitalizing U.S. semiconductor production), and tightening gun laws in 2022. 

Why did McConnell tamp down the grim reaper on such occasions? McConnell always had his eyes on how approaching elections might affect his personal power and his party’s control of the Senate. Most often, that demanded offering GOP voters some red meat, such as enabling confirmation of three pro-life conservatives for the Supreme Court or voting to acquit Trump at his second impeachment trial, even after McConnell denounced Trump’s role in provoking the violent January 6, 2021, insurrection.

But some elections – albeit few and far between – seemed to encourage McConnell to momentarily make the Senate work. Perhaps pressure from the remaining pragmatists inside the GOP conference compelled McConnell to encourage cooperation. That approach also allowed McConnell to get and stay out front of his party colleagues. 

More broadly, McConnell likely calculated that Republicans sometimes needed to show voters they could trust Republicans to govern. Perhaps such efforts also showed his party colleagues they should continue to elect him their leader. The desire to gain and keep power likely underlay such uncommon moments of GOP cooperation under McConnell’s lead. How the next GOP leader shapes and manages the Republican brand under the shadow of Trump remains to be seen.