McConnell surpasses Mike Mansfield as longest-serving Senate leader

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
Greg Nash
File – Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) addresses reporters after the weekly policy luncheon on Tuesday, December 13, 2022.

Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) on Tuesday will surpass the late Sen. Mike Mansfield, a Democrat from Montana, as the longest-serving Senate leader in history after 16 years leading the Senate Republican Conference.  

McConnell plans to mark the historic occasion with a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon in which he will commemorate the different leadership styles of some of his predecessors, such as former Sen. Joseph Taylor Robinson (D) of Arkansas, who pushed former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs through the Senate, and former Kentucky Sen. Alben Barkley (D), who clashed with the Roosevelt White House over tax policy. 

“The greatest honor of my career is representing the Commonwealth of Kentucky in this chamber and fighting for my fellow Kentuckians. But the second-greatest honor is the trust that my fellow Republican Senators have placed in me to lead our diverse Conference and help them achieve their goals,” McConnell will say in prepared remarks.  

McConnell, who is 80, was elected to the Senate in 1984 and ascended to the position of Senate Republican leader in 2007 after serving a stint as Senate GOP whip from 2003 to 2007 under former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a close ally of former President George W. Bush.  

McConnell served as Senate majority leader from 2015, after Republicans picked up nine Senate seats in the 2014 midterm election, until January 2021, after Republicans lost two runoff races in Georgia, which many GOP senators blamed on former President Trump’s decision to contest the 2020 presidential election.  

McConnell’s leadership style has evolved over the past 16 years.  

He made a reputation for himself in the early years of the Obama administration by repeatedly blocking or slowing down the Democratic agenda with filibusters and other delaying tactics and keeping his small Republican minority of 40 members — and then 41 members — tightly unified.

McConnell’s obstruction of former President Obama’s agenda was summed up by his bold decision after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in February of 2016 to keep Scalia’s seat vacant until after that year’s presidential election, refusing to give Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, a floor vote.  

But McConnell over the years has also developed a track record of working with Democrats, such as the deal he hammered out with then-Vice President Joe Biden in late 2012 to make permanent most of Bush’s tax cuts and avoid the so-called fiscal cliff. 

In 2021, McConnell voted for President Biden’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan, for which he gave a group of moderate Republicans space to negotiate with a group of moderate Democrats.  

Last year, McConnell voted for legislation to address gun violence after a mass shooting at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and to improve the competitiveness of the domestic semiconductor manufacturing industry.  

Throughout his years as the Senate’s top Republican leader, McConnell has prided himself on being prepared, staying disciplined and saying only what he needs to — whether to the media at Tuesday afternoon press conferences or his Republican colleagues at their regular lunch meetings.  

McConnell’s leadership style more resembles Mansfield’s preference for handling conflicts with low-key, behind-the-scenes diplomacy than Robinson’s red-faced rants and desk-pounding exclamations to move obstinate colleagues.  

“Then there’ve been leaders who rose to the job through lower-key, behind-the-scenes styles; who preferred to focus on serving their colleagues rather than dominating them,” McConnell will say in his prepared remarks.  

“And that, Mr. President, is how Sen. Michael Joseph Mansfield of Montana became the longest-serving Senate leader in American history until this morning,” he will say.  

Mansfield, who was elected in 1952, served as Senate majority leader from 1961 to 1977 and played a critical role in shepherding former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society agenda.  

He worked closely with his Republican counterpart, former Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), to break a filibuster by conservative Senate Democrats against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  

Tags Alben Barkley Antonin Scalia Bill Frist Donald Trump Franklin D. Roosevelt George W. Bush Joe Biden Lyndon B. Johnson Lyndon Baines Johnson Mitch McConnell Obama

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