Bill Straub: A story of a different kind of clash between two state titans, Sen. McConnell and Sen. Paul Skip to content

Bill Straub: A story of a different kind of clash between two state titans, Sen. McConnell and Sen. Paul

The facade of collegiality has been dropped, and the two senators from Kentucky are definitely not “getting along.”

5 min read
Caricatures by Donkey Hotey.

While wars rage in Ukraine, Gaza and other hot spots around this weary globe, a clash of a different, lower sort is shaping up, centered in my old Kentucky home between a pair of Republican titans – Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul.

There is, to his credit, no more solid a supporter of Ukraine in its battle with Russia than McConnell, of Louisville, the Senate Republican leader, who is consistently urging the U.S. to send more aid to that battered nation. Paul, of Bowling Green, whose views border on nihilism and who generally believes no government is the best government, is decidedly less enthusiastic about the nation’s further involvement in the conflict.

For much of the past 12 years, this Bluegrass odd couple — McConnell, the stoic insider, and Paul, the bomb thrower — have never really resided in the same political neighborhood. But they managed to paper over their differences and even sought to convince doubters that they were great chums, sharing an occasional dinner and exchanging various niceties.

That levee broke in July 2022 when the two collided over a proposed nomination to fill a soon-to-be-vacant federal court seat in Kentucky. As well reported by Joe Sonka of The Courier Journal at the time, McConnell managed to convince his old pal on the opposite side of the Senate aisle, now President Biden, to nominate a right-wing, anti-abortion lawyer, Chad Meredith, to replace U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell, who planned to retire.

How McConnell managed to finagle this deal — convincing a left-of-center, pro-choice Democrat to nominate an anti-abortion, Federalist Society devotee for the federal bench — has never really been made clear. And there’s certainly reason to believe Mitch at the time was quite pleased with himself over the coup.

Paul was not. Miffed that he was not consulted over the arrangement and, like many Senate members, maintaining an inflated view of himself, he managed to scuttle the deal, thus providing new meaning to the old saying he cut off his nose to spite his face. The slot has not been filled, and it’s unlikely to go to any nominee of Paul’s philosophical leanings in the near future.

Regardless, the confrontation managed to shatter the façade the pair erected over their matter-of-convenience relationship. The rapport never seemed to have legs anyway: McConnell opposed Paul when he successfully ran for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in 2010, although he later supported the old Tea Party sweetheart when he ran – poorly – in the 2016 GOP presidential primary.

Now it appears the roof has collapsed anew. Appropriations for the current fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, remain in flux because of the serious – yet hilarious – situation facing the House where the Republican majority remains vague about who should replace the deposed Rep. Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House. Without a leader, the lower chamber can’t do its job – not that it was exactly a house afire when McCarthy held the gavel.

So, the federal government is operating on a continuing resolution that essentially maintains funding levels through Nov. 17. In piecing that agreement together, McConnell, the ultimate anti-Russia hawk, hoped to include an additional $24 billion sought by the Biden administration to dispatch to Ukraine.

But Mitch couldn’t get it done, undercut in large degree by members of his own party. And it’s equally unlikely he’ll prove able to insert the funding in yet another continuing resolution when the current one expires, since it’s impossible to conceive of the House getting its act together sufficiently to pass the necessary appropriations measures by the deadline. Of course, the on-going chaos even places a second CR at risk, creating the possibility of a governmental shutdown.

One of the primary Ukraine funding undercutters was, to no one’s surprise, our boy Rand. In a message to The American Conservative cited in an article entitled, “After Shutdown Missteps, McConnell’s Leadership on Unsure Footing,’’ Paul wrote:

“Days before the end of the fiscal year, the Senate leadership threatened the American people with a choice: fund our proxy war against a nuclear power in Ukraine or the government will shut down. I will not allow the government to be held hostage and made clear on the Senate floor that I would oppose any effort to expedite the passage of any measure that contained new Ukraine funding. That objection bought enough time for my colleagues to realize they are out of touch with a war weary nation that does not want to become involved in another endless quagmire abroad.”

That can’t be viewed as anything other than a shot across McConnell’s bow, essentially characterizing him as a hostage-taker out of touch with the nation he represents. Most significantly, Paul’s comments arrive at a time when questions about the ability of the 81-year-old GOP leader to continue in his role are gaining steam.

And Paul wasn’t done yet. He told that same publication, “The tide is turning. Although we managed to remove the $6 billion for Ukraine from the continuing resolution last week, the uniparty will remain adamant that the American taxpayers bankroll their war. I will continue doing everything in my power to ensure we put the security and prosperity of the American people first.”

So, now, in the weirdness known as Rand’s World, Mitch McConnell is part of the “uniparty,” where Democrats and Republicans act as one. The characterization wasn’t offered as a compliment. And apparently, anyone, including McConnell, who differs with Paul on policy simply aren’t putting the American people first.

Paul also appears to be crossing McConnell on the crisis facing Israel, a nation that finds itself embroiled in a confrontation with Hamas in Gaza after the terrorist organization engaged in a particularly brutal and inhumane attack on the civilian population there. McConnell is co-sponsor of a resolution, along with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, asserting that the upper chamber stands firmly with Israel and in opposition to Hamas.

Paul is the only senator among the 100 who opposes the resolution, offered by his fellow Kentuckian and old pal Mitch.

And, in a final jeremiad, Paul earlier this year announced his intention to block all nominations issued by the State Department until the Biden administration released documents related to the COVID pandemic, a maneuver he hopes will further his mindless persecution of Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Among the positions affected by Paul’s hold? Ambassador to Israel, which remains unfilled.

Paul’s provocative comments arrive at a time when McConnell’s status is under scrutiny. McConnell has obvious health issues — he suffered a concussion some months back and, apparently as a result, experienced seizures while attending two separate news conferences. He also finds himself at constant odds with his party’s so-called MAGA wing, which includes Paul, who support former President Donald J. Trump.

Suffice to say, McConnell and the Lord of Mar-a-Lago don’t get along.

As noted in The American Conservative: “For the first time in a long time, it appears McConnell’s iron grip on power over the Republican conference in the senate is loosening. Senators in the Republican conference are feeling increasingly emboldened to behave like the senior legislators their title bestows upon them, and not be an army of “little robots” for McConnell, to borrow a term from Scott.”

Scott in this case is Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), who challenged McConnell last November for the position of Senate Republican leader, a post McConnell has held for a record 16 years. Scott lost that election 37-10.

Paul has not revealed publicly who he voted for.


Written by Bill Straub, a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. Cross-posted from the Northern Kentucky Tribune.

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