Who Is Mitch McConnell?
Politician Mitch McConnell began his career as an elected official as judge-executive of Kentucky's Jefferson County in 1977. Elected to the U.S. Senate as a moderate Republican in 1984, he displayed a political acumen that enabled him to rise to the position of minority leader in 2006. McConnell gained national attention for his opposition to President Barack Obama's legislative ambitions, helping to turn the tide against Democratic control of Congress. Named Senate majority leader in 2014, he infamously refused to allow Senate hearings for a new Supreme Court nominee in 2016 following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
Early Years and Education
Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. was born on February 20, 1942, in Sheffield, Alabama. After contracting polio at age two, he recovered through his mother's vigorous therapy sessions, even developing into a talented baseball player.
A new job for Addison Sr. brought the family to Louisville, Kentucky, where McConnell became student body president at duPont Manual High School. He held the same role at the University of Louisville, before graduating with honors in 1964 with a B.A. in history. In 1967, he earned his J.D. from the University of Kentucky College of Law.
Early Political Career
Setting his sights on a career in politics, McConnell interned for Kentucky Congressman Gene Snyder and Senator John Sherman Cooper in the mid-1960s. He served as chief legislative assistant for Senator Marlow Cook after law school, and later became a deputy assistant attorney general to President Gerald Ford.
In 1977, McConnell earned his first elected seat as judge-executive of Kentucky's Jefferson County. A moderate Republican early in his career, he supported collective bargaining rights for public employees and steered federal funds toward the expansion of Jefferson Memorial Forest.
In 1984, McConnell edged out Walter D. Huddleston for a seat in the Senate, making him the only Republican in the country to defeat an incumbent Democratic senator that year, as well as the first of his party to win a statewide race since 1968.
During his first term in the Senate, McConnell earned a spot on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and advocated for tax reform. Gaining traction after his re-election in 1990, he became known for his opposition to campaign-finance reform, and successfully spearheaded an effort to block legislation on that front in 1994.
Named chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 1996, McConnell continued to buck the tide at opportune moments. He sued the Federal Election Commission following the passage of the bipartisan McCain-Feingold Act in 2002, and in 2006, he opposed a constitutional amendment to ban the desecration of the American flag.
By then, the junior Kentucky senator had earned renown for his political cunning and ability to forge coalitions. He was voted party whip in 2002, and four years later he took over as Senate minority leader.
Republican Leader and Opposition to President Obama
As the Senate's top Republican, McConnell rejected the Democratic push for establishing a timetable to withdraw troops from Iraq. In late 2008, he threw his support behind the Troubled Asset Relief Program, signed into law by outgoing President George W. Bush.
With the 2008 election of President Obama giving Democrats control of the White House and both branches of Congress, McConnell focused on obstructing the new commander-in-chief whenever possible. Most notably, he opposed the passage of the economic stimulus package, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and the health insurance reform package, the Affordable Care Act (also known as "Obamacare") in 2010.
Additionally, he stood against the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, delayed approval of Obama's judicial nominees and rejected a host of other legislation put forth during the Obama administration. Making his party's strategy explicit in a 2010 interview with the National Journal, he stated: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."
While McConnell did not achieve that goal, he saw gains with the Republican takeover of the House in 2010. Two years later, despite the Democrats’ push for gun control legislation after the December 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, McConnell voted against a 2013 bill that would have expanded background checks for gun purchases.
He continued to push the Republican narrative of wasteful Democratic spending, fueling an ongoing dispute over the federal debt limit that eventually forced him into a deal to end a government shutdown in October 2013. Although his compromise angered the Tea Party faction of the GOP, McConnell survived the ensuing power struggle that brought down top House Republicans Eric Cantor and John Boehner. His re-election to the Senate capped another wave of Republican gains in 2014, giving him his long-coveted role of Senate majority leader.
Majority Leader and Supreme Court Controversy
With the votes in his favor, McConnell turned his attention to new legislation. He oversaw Senate approval of a five-year highway bill, struck deals to enact education and social security reforms and pushed for a bill to address an opioid epidemic. Additionally, he continued his work as the senior member of the Agriculture, Appropriations and Rules Committees.
The Senate leader infamously obstructed President Obama once again following the death of Supreme Court Justice Scalia in February 2016. With an Obama appointment expected to tip the Court in a liberal direction, McConnell announced that "The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice," and then refused to allow hearings for the nominee, Merrick Garland.
Although the move drew condemnation from both sides of the aisle, McConnell's gambit paid off when Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, assuring the eventual nomination and confirmation of conservative favorite Neil Gorsuch.
Trump Administration: Obamacare Repeal, Tax Reform, Wall Vote
With President Trump in office, McConnell and his fellow Republican lawmakers embarked on their long-promised effort to repeal Obamacare. After some early missteps, the House managed to pass its version of repeal legislation in May 2017. However, the Senate bill failed to generate enough traction to get over the hump, and with the defections of independent-minded Republican senators like John McCain and Susan Collins, McConnell first had to delay holding a vote, before suffering a rare public defeat when the revised version was rejected in July.
The failed bill fueled increased tension between McConnell and President Trump, already at odds over the direction of the Republican Party. However, McConnell got back on track by securing the passage of a sweeping Senate tax reform bill in early December. After he and House Speaker Paul Ryan reconciled their differences, the $1.5 trillion tax bill passed on December 20, 2017, giving Trump his first major legislative victory.
The GOP scored another victory when the two parties bickered over a temporary spending bill, leading to a brief government shutdown in January 2018. Democrats demanded renewed protections for "Dreamers," the children of illegal immigrants growing up in the United States, but relented after McConnell delivered a vague promise to consider the issue.
In April 2018, the majority leader said he would like to make the temporary individual tax cuts from the 2017 bill into permanent ones. Around that time, it was also revealed that McConnell had allegedly torpedoed legislation from the March omnibus bill that would update the congressional policy on sexual harassment, over a provision that rendered members financially liable for settlements against them.
Additionally, he addressed the thorny issue of Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, with Trump reportedly fuming over the special counsel's intrusion into other areas of his professional dealings. McConnell downplayed the importance of the bipartisan legislation recently introduced to protect special counsels and said he would not bring it to the floor for a vote.
In 2019, McConnell found himself cornered again over President Trump's insistence on building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Following a 35-day government shutdown on the issue and a budget compromise that allocated just $1.375 billion for the wall, Trump ignored McConnell's warnings about lukewarm Senate support and declared a national emergency in February to obtain more funding. The House subsequently passed a resolution to overturn the national emergency, and McConnell was not able to prevent its passage in the Senate, resulting in the first veto of the Trump presidency.
After a released summary of the completed Mueller report in March cleared Trump of colluding with Russia — though his possible obstruction of justice remained a politically charged topic — an emboldened president announced that he was taking on the repeal and replace of Obamacare yet again. This time, however, Trump heeded McConnell's warnings that Senate Republicans had no appetite for another immediate healthcare battle, and the president said he would tackle the issue after being reelected.
That summer, the Senate majority leader suffered a fractured shoulder after falling on his patio, forcing him to continue his work from home.
In fall 2019, McConnell and his fellow senators mostly took a back seat as the country focused on the impeachment hearings of President Trump in the House of Representatives. The lower chamber voted almost entirely along party lines in December to charge the president with abuse of power and obstruction of justice, though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to immediately relay the articles of impeachment to the Republican-controlled Senate, leaving McConnell to jostle with the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, over terms of the trial.
Beyond consenting to let arguments take place over three days instead of two, McConnell leveraged the Republican majority to his advantage after the Senate trial began in January 2020, squashing Democratic attempts to amend trial rules and call witnesses.
On February 5, 2020, the Senate voted along party lines to acquit Trump on both impeachment charges, prompting the president to praise McConnell for a "fantastic job" in a celebratory speech afterward.
A devoted Baptist, McConnell in 2016 published a book, The Long Game, about his life and career in politics.
McConnell has three daughters with his first wife, Sherrill Redmon. In 1993, he married his second wife, Elaine Chao, who later served as George W. Bush’s secretary of labor. In November 2016, Chao was tapped by president-elect Trump for the position of transportation secretary. Upon this appointment, McConnell stated he would not recuse himself from his wife’s Senate confirmation.
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