Senate Republicans on Thursday elected Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to be majority leader of the new Senate in January, putting the longtime lawmaker in place as the party’s chief adversary to President Obama.
The second Kentuckian to serve as majority leader after Democrat Alben Barkley in the 1930s and 1940s, McConnell offered a possible preview of what Obama can expect from him over the next two years.
“I had maybe naively hoped the president would look at the results of the election and decide to come to the political center and do some business with us,” McConnell told reporters. “I still hope he does at some point, but the early signs are not good.”
While McConnell’s ascension to majority leader was a unanimous coronation, Senate Democrats voted for Harry Reid of Nevada to be minority leader in a tense, four-hour closed-door meeting in the Old Senate Chamber. Several Democrats refused to support his re-election.
A chastened Reid emerged from the meeting and announced he had expanded his leadership team by adding Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a liberal favorite, to the party’s messaging operation.
“What do I expect her to do?” Reid said. “I expect her to be Elizabeth Warren.”
The Democratic meeting was a venting session over what went wrong in the Nov. 4 elections and what direction the party will take in the Senate in the future.
“One of the reasons it was one of the longer caucuses we’ve ever had was that we were honest with each other, straightforward and clear about the message the voters sent,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.
Before finally getting the nod from his party in a secret ballot, Reid heard blunt comments from his fellow Democrats.
Twenty-eight of the current Senate’s 53 Democrats and two independents spoke during the meeting. At least five senators – Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Warner of Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota – declined to vote for Reid, who was running unopposed.
“To me, when you have an election like this, common sense tells me you need to change things,” McCaskill said. “I think we’re going to have a process of introspection.”
Manchin and other unidentified Democrats asked colleagues for a one-week delay in the leadership vote to assess why the party was so soundly defeated in last week’s elections but were rebuffed in a voice vote.
“I do not vote to accept the leadership team we have now,” Manchin told reporters after the meeting. “We asked for a week to have an open discussion on everything that went wrong, evaluate what went wrong – messaging, the lack of messaging – and move forward. Harry Reid is a good man, and I have all the respect for him. I just voted for different leadership.”
Despite the drama, the Senate leadership elections went as expected. Republicans chose to elevate the current minority leadership team when the party becomes the majority in January.
John Cornyn of Texas becomes majority whip; John Thune of South Dakota will be Republican Conference chair; John Barrasso of Wyoming will be Senate Republican Policy chair; Roy Blunt of Missouri will be Senate Republican Conference vice chair; and Roger Wicker of Mississippi will be chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“We hope that the president and Democrats will work with us,” Blunt said. “Frankly, the president is going to engage one way or another. He'll either have to engage the day when the bill arrives on his desk (by using a veto) or he'll have to engage earlier in the process and work with Republicans.”
While retaining Reid as their leader, Democrats also re-elected their core leadership team, with Richard Durbin of Illinois as whip; Charles Schumer of New York as Senate Democratic Conference vice chair; and Patty Murray of Washington as conference secretary.
But there were some changes and additions to the Democratic lineup. In addition to Warren, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana was named Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chair, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota was chosen to serve as chair of the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee.
The best-known among them, Warren has quickly become an icon to the left, with many liberals urging her to run for president to set up a Democratic alternative to a potential Hillary Clinton White House bid.
“You know, Wall Street is doing very well, CEOs are bringing in millions more, and families all across this country are struggling,” Warren said. “We have to make this government work for the American people.”
Still, some liberals wondered whether joining the Democratic leadership will mute Warren’s populist message and appeal.
“I really rather doubt that she’s going to give up her progressive views and her strong commitment to consumers, even if she’s part of the leadership,” said retiring liberal Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. “She has a platform, she has a following in this country and she speaks with clarity.”
The House of Representatives also held leadership races Thursday. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was easily re-elected on a voice vote. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was re-elected House majority leader as were Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., was re-elected chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Kansas Rep. Lynn Jenkins was re-elected as vice chair of the House Republican Conference.
House Democrats will elect their leaders on Nov. 18.