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But these proposals, McConnell warns, could kneecap the Senate GOP leader in ways that rival House Republicans’ weakening of the speakership

McConnell urges GOP to resist weakening leader post

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been largely silent in public about the ongoing race to succeed him as the top Republican. But during Tuesday’s closed-door GOP lunch, McConnell gave an impassioned plea for preserving key elements of the leadership structure that are facing scrutiny from his potential successors.

McConnell’s remarks, recounted by several senators who were in the room, show how the longtime leader is working to prevent drastic changes to how the GOP Conference operates. Some are embraced by a wide array of Republican senators.

But these proposals, McConnell warns, could kneecap the Senate GOP leader in ways that rival House Republicans’ weakening of the speakership. McConnell believes the House became ungovernable because too much of the speaker’s power was ceded to rank-and-file members.

In the lunch: The Kentucky Republican specifically took aim at establishing term limits for the top Senate job. McConnell has made this case publicly as well but went into greater detail on Tuesday. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who are running to succeed McConnell, support term limits.

McConnell’s pitch centered on fundraising and raw power, arguing that some proposals on the table would impose unnecessary limits on both. Scott, a longtime McConnell critic who ran unsuccessfully for Republican leader in 2022, is the driving force behind many of the proposed changes.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, seen by GOP senators as the frontrunner in the race to succeed McConnell, has advocated for reforms that would amount to “democratizing” the conference, including opening the floor to a more robust amendment process. This would give senators new opportunities to weigh in on legislation.

Here’s what McConnell said, according to attendees:

McConnell started off by arguing that there are direct consequences to weakening the power of the leader. The longest-serving party leader in Senate history made the case against term limits, noting that none of the other congressional leaders in either party are subject to them.

McConnell said term limits would make it harder for the leader to build a donor network and the type of political operation necessary to raise massive sums of cash — a crucial element of the job. The McConnell-aligned super PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, has been central to this.

 To further underscore his point, McConnell named Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), saying Schmitt wouldn’t be in the Senate today if not for SLF. McConnell has used a variation of this line before when he argues that term limits would make it harder for the leader to do what’s necessary in the era of Citizens United.

A senior Schmitt aide pushed back on this characterization, saying McConnell preferred then-Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) in the primary but “Missouri conservatives had other ideas” and Schmitt won by a big margin. SLF went on the attack against scandal-plagued Eric Greitens but didn’t explicitly promote Schmitt.

Reaction: Only one GOP senator, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), spoke after McConnell. Tillis endorsed McConnell’s remarks and the sentiments behind them — that the power of the Republican leader shouldn’t be weakened.

A central tenet of Scott’s pitch is that the leader should be guided by the will of the majority of the conference.

Tillis brought up the bipartisan Safer Communities Act — the gun safety bill he helped negotiate in 2022 — and said the effort wouldn’t have come together if McConnell were handcuffed by this rule.

Of course, just 15 Republicans — a fraction of the conference — voted for that legislation. Tillis said that other factions of the conference have the power to do the same when they’re in the minority on a particular issue without fearing any fallout.

Earlier this year, McConnell noted that if he had to listen to the majority of his conference on every legislative item, the government would never be funded and the debt limit would never be raised.

The pushback: McConnell’s opposition to term limits after serving as GOP leader for 18 years may not be that surprising. Nor is his desire to preserve the levers of power he has used.

One of the retorts we heard last night was that the money — and donors — follow the leader and aren’t McConnell-specific. We’ll note, however, that Speaker Mike Johnson hasn’t been able to match Kevin McCarthy’s fundraising numbers.

We caught up with Scott late Tuesday and asked about McConnell’s comments. Scott didn’t take shots at McConnell, instead, he pitched his own ideas.

“I’ve told people very clearly — I’m running because I believe there’s a different way to govern,” Scott told us. “If you think the way we’ve been run is better, then you should not pick me. Because I want change.”

— Andrew Desiderio

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