By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Top U.S. Senate Republican Mitch McConnell‘s negotiations with Democrats to try to secure more Ukraine aid has drawn mounting attacks from hardliners within his party that some lawmakers say is a direct result of Donald Trump‘s rising influence.
The Kentucky Republican, the chamber’s longest-serving party leader at 81, has faced more heat from hardliners since Trump, the party’s likely presidential nominee, torpedoed a bipartisan deal McConnell backed that aimed to stem the flow of migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border and provide aid to Ukraine and Israel.
After party hardliners rejected that deal — which some had sought as a trade-off for the Ukraine aid — McConnell has continued to work with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to advance a standalone $95 billion security bill.
His willingness to work across the aisle — a practical necessity given a narrow Democratic majority — has become a liability among some of his Trump-aligned colleagues.
“Who has more influence? Probably Trump,” Senator Josh Hawley told reporters. “I mean, he’s the future. He is going to be the nominee of the party. He may well win in November. Senator McConnell is probably not the future.”
McConnell’s office declined to comment for this story. But he told U.S. media outlets last week that he has faced tough political times before and survived. On the Senate floor on Friday he said it was critical the U.S. aid Ukraine as it fights off Russia’s invasion.
“This is about rebuilding the arsenal of democracy and demonstrating to our allies and adversaries alike that we’re serious about exercising American strength,” McConnell said. “American assistance with these efforts is not charity. It’s an investment in cold, hard U.S. interests.”
Senator Mike Braun, an Indiana conservative, tied the level of opposition facing McConnell to the growing number of the 49 Republicans in the Senate who have endorsed Trump. So far at least 31 have backed him.
“More are coming along to see that the old way of thinking is not working,” Braun said.
Hardline Republicans have long been a major force in the House of Representatives, repeatedly flirting with government shutdowns and near-default.
Just last week, dissent within the narrow 219-212 House Republican majority dealt Speaker Mike Johnson back-to-back humiliating defeats as the chamber failed to pass a resolution to impeach U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and a standalone Israel aid bill.
But lawmakers say activism among Senate Trump supporters, characterized by what members describe as “high-decibel” exchanges in closed-door meetings, has reached unprecedented levels.
McConnell and Trump have had a stormy relationship since the Senate leader recognized Joe Biden as winner the 2020 presidential election, despite Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud. McConnell later accused Trump of provoking the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol after the Senate acquitted Trump of impeachment charges.
‘BLOOD IN THE WATER’
A small number of Republican hardliners have spoken openly about replacing McConnell, months after their House counterparts ousted Johnson’s predecessor Kevin McCarthy in October after he used a bipartisan bill to keep the government funded.
Senator Ted Cruz, one of Trump’s staunchest allies, told a news conference this week that it is time for McConnell to go. Another hardliner, Senator Mike Lee, has also called for a leadership change.
“You can score only so many points for the other team before losing your status as team captain,” Lee said on the social platform X in response to a post by X CEO Elon Musk that said: “Time for Mitch to go.”
But McConnell, who was overwhelmingly reelected leader by a 37-10 vote margin over Trump favorite Senator Rick Scott in 2022, still enjoys support from a supermajority of his conference, according to several Republicans.
“There’s some people that feel like maybe there’s some blood in the water and they’re going to try to pounce on it,” said Senator Kevin Cramer.
He added: “If anything, what this does is to sort of harden the people that support Mitch.”
In recent weeks, the rising popularity of Trump’s pugilistic and populist style had been clearly on display in the Senate, traditionally known for more order and decorum than the House.
Trump, who derisively refers to McConnell as an “old crow,” has repeatedly called for his ouster. McConnell has responded that Old Crow is his favorite brand of bourbon.
It has been a profound shift, given the role McConnell played during his administration by helping Trump appoint three Supreme Court justices that cemented a 6-3 conservative majority.
But Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who often adopts hardline positions, said McConnell would probably continue as leader after this year’s November election, should he choose to do so, even if Trump returns to the White House.
“They probably won’t be having dinner or chit-chatting a lot,” Rubio told reporters.
“But they’ll find a lot of commonality on issues for the most part. I mean, they’re probably going to agree on 90% of things, even though they aren’t necessarily friendly.”
(Reporting by David Morgan; Additional reporting by Katharine Jackson and Makini Brice; Editing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis)