WASHINGTON — Sen. Mitch McConnell was re-elected Tuesday to his Senate minority leadership post, putting to rest months of speculation about whether the top-ranking Republican would face a challenge.
The Kentucky lawmaker was nominated by 2008 Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen.-elect Marco Rubio of Florida, one of several Tea Party movement-backed freshmen who won with support from South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint.
DeMint, a staunch conservative, had been mentioned as a possible challenger to McConnell for the Senate GOP leadership position.
DeMint said repeatedly he wasn't interested in the post.
"I think we have a great opportunity here to demonstrate that we are responding to what the American people clearly would like for us to do: Cut the spending, cut the debt, and get private-sector job creation going again," McConnell said after the closed-door vote. "It is our hope that we will be able to work with the administration on all of those issues."
McConnell's re-election, coupled with his endorsement of a DeMint-led moratorium on earmarks — the thousands of local projects stuffed into legislation that add up to billions of federal dollars — further signals a unified Republican caucus amid messy infighting that could have proved a distraction.
DeMint and McConnell have clashed repeatedly over spending bills and other GOP priorities, and the South Carolina lawmaker was poised to force an internal vote Tuesday among incoming Republican senators on freezing all requests for earmarks.
DeMint would have been joined in this effort by at least eight incumbent senators and by the five incoming senators, including Sen.-elect Rand Paul of Bowling Green, who won election with backing from Tea Party activists.
Paul said he would support McConnell as minority leader.
DeMint won one of the biggest legislative victories of his career Monday when McConnell agreed to his demand for a freeze on spending earmarks on the eve of the GOP Senate caucus vote.
DeMint commended McConnell's position on the earmark ban and re-election to the top GOP leadership post.
"There's a lot of unity in the conference now," DeMint said. "I think everyone feels good about our leadership team."
Tea Party-endorsed freshmen also publicly rallied Tuesday behind McConnell.
"Senator McConnell and his team have done a good job of positioning this conference during the last congress, stood their ground on issues like the health care bill," Rubio told reporters after the leadership meeting. "They'll do a good job of positioning us moving forward. I think evidence of that is the position they've adopted on banning earmarks. I think it's a real good first step."
Lesley Clark, David Lightman and James Rosen of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this story.