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Sen. Mitch McConnell will step down down from leadership role in November

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell is the longest-serving U.S. Senate leader in history. He was influential and powerful both as a majority and minority leader in the United States Senate. And now he says he'll step down toward the end of the year.

Republican strategist Scott Jennings played senior roles on Senator McConnell's campaigns. And, Scott, I've got a thing here that says you consider Senator McConnell a close friend and mentor. Is that about right?

SCOTT JENNINGS: Yeah. I've known him for 28 years, since I was 18 years old and a college student in the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville.

INSKEEP: Why do you think he is leaving at this particular moment?

JENNINGS: Well, I think he was pretty clear in his speech, Steve, that he, you know, realized that turning 82 years old and talked about dealing with a personal family tragedy had reminded him of the need to reflect on your own life and what it's time to do and when. And I think he sent a pretty loud and unmistakable message to the rest of our political leadership in this country when he did it.

INSKEEP: Although it's possible to say that he was also acknowledging that his influence was waning, he seemed increasingly in recent years to be - I don't know if leading by following is exactly accurate, but realizing that his Republican caucus was not in the same place he was on issues like aid to Ukraine.

JENNINGS: Yeah. I think there is definitely a division in the conference over these issues about foreign affairs in particular, and there's no doubt that it took a toll on him fighting these battles. But I do think he could have been reelected leader had he wanted to be. But I do think over the last few months, he came to the realization that at some point, the next generation of leadership has to step forward, and when he comes out of leadership, he'll have two years left in a term, he won't be shackled by the burdens of leading a party, and he'll be free, I think, really, to lead the Reagan faction of the Republican Senate conference and fighting forcefully for an engaged American superpower in the world.

INSKEEP: Oh, now this is very interesting. Nancy Pelosi has remained in the House of Representatives after stepping down as speaker, as a speaker emerita, is thought still to be influential. You think that McConnell will still be trying to use his influence in a larger way than just being a single senator, then?

JENNINGS: Yeah. He is the second most senior person in the Republican Conference. The Senate is organized on seniority. He's always been on the Appropriations Committee. I have a strong suspicion he's going to use that perch to replenish and expand America's arsenals. And he'll have a lot to say about the Reagan worldview. And, of course, that's going to be counterbalanced against these new Trump-era senators who are arguing for a more isolationist policy. I think McConnell is actually looking forward to being unshackled by the leadership position so that he can be free to fight for that worldview that I really do believe he feels deeply in his heart.

INSKEEP: Now, there's the larger question of McConnell's legacy. Congress - he was somebody who would work the Senate rules. He would sometimes get things done, very often block things, most famously blocking the appointment of a Supreme Court justice by President Obama in 2016, which arguably changed the balance on the court and changed history. How did he feel? How has he felt about using the Senate rules to get what he wants?

JENNINGS: Well, he believes that he was right to do that and that it was proper for the Senate to play that kind of a role. He also believes that his moves on the judiciary, particularly on the Supreme Court, are the most consequential things that he did. So he would agree with your assessment. And over the next two years, I suspect he's going to continue to have an interest in this issue of the federal judiciary. I mean, you never know when there'll be another Supreme Court vacancy. Biden, of course, has swung the balance back during his term. And so I would expect McConnell to help his successor, whoever that is, restart the pipeline and keep the focus on putting conservative judges on the bench.

INSKEEP: Although I'm kind of wondering what the consequences of that are going to be after this year's election. If we do end up in a circumstance where one party controls the majority in the Senate and one party controls the White House, could we end up with basically no justices or no judges being confirmed at all?

JENNINGS: Well, you raise an interesting question. There are some people who are starting to believe that we could be in for a triple flip - White House, Senate and House all changing party hands. That would, of course, mean the Senate was in Republican hands and...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

JENNINGS: ...A Democrat back in the White House. We'll have to see what happens. But I think McConnell's tactical experience in this realm will be invaluable to the next Republican leader. And if Donald Trump wins the presidency, he's going to need the Mitch McConnells of the world to do what he did before, and that's get good people onto the bench. I think McConnell will be eager to align himself with a Republican president on that, even if they have disagreements on other issues.

INSKEEP: Just got a few seconds, but why did McConnell appear to defer to Trump so often when he was thought to loathe Trump? Could hardly say his name.

JENNINGS: Well, you know, McConnell has always believed that presidents and presidential nominees do effectively lead their party. They're the most influential people in the party. And his job was to help a Republican president be successful. To understand McConnell is to understand one word - outcomes. He was always looking to get outcomes for the Republican Party and the conservative worldview. I think he did that effectively with Trump, even though they obviously had a famous break at the...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

JENNINGS: ...End of Trump's term in office. They - there's really no debating they achieved quite a lot together.

INSKEEP: Scott Jennings, longtime friend and supporter of Mitch McConnell, thanks so much.

JENNINGS: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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