WASHINGTON — "Grace under pressure. Country and institution before self," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday, describing his impressions of retiring Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.
McConnell will need plenty of that himself in the weeks and months ahead. With Boehner announcing his plan to resign, the Kentucky Republican will be the focus of conservative criticism of Republicans in Washington.
Conservatives inside and outside the Capitol did not waste time sharpening their critiques of McConnell, re-elected to a six-year term in 2014. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., one of the co-founders of the House Freedom Caucus, turned to complaints from many conservatives who don't serve in the Senate about the rules that give Democrats considerable leverage.
"If you insist on maintaining the modern filibuster rule without any changes whatsoever, then the Senate will lead Congress down a road to irrelevancy. At the very least, at the very least, they should go back to the old rules that require the senators to speak a filibuster as opposed to just doing it by notice. Yes, this should be an absolute warning sign to McConnell," Mulvaney told reporters. "This was not about personalities. I can't think of but maybe one or two people out of 250 who don't think John Boehner's a really, really good guy. ... This is not something that we wanted to do, that's why I described it as a necessary thing."
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"Speaker Boehner is out, and now it's time to make sure conservative leadership is in. Hopefully this serves as a strong hint to Mitch McConnell. Time for him to fade into the sunset of his career, side by side with John Boehner," said Mark Meckler, a conservative activist who co-founded the Tea Party Patriots. "The tea party movement will continue to work to make that happen."
Presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was asked about the possibility McConnell should follow Boehner in exiting leadership.
"That's a question for Leader McConnell and for the Republican Conference," Cruz replied.
But Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said McConnell has all the support he needs.
"We decide when we elect our leadership, and we have decided," McCain said. "I'm sure if Sen. McConnell chose to ask for a vote of confidence he would receive it. I'm not sure it's necessary. We've got of other issues that we need to address, including the shutdown of the government."
McCain spoke with reporters in the lobby of a Northwest Washington hotel after addressing the Value Voters Summit, a large annual gathering of conservatives who were chatting among themselves about Boehner's announcement, but also about McConnell.
In a statement separate from his remarks, Mulvaney lamented word from Boehner that the strategy going forward for keeping the government from facing a shutdown on Oct. 1 would allow for continued federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
McConnell moved Thursday to diffuse the latest shutdown threat, making the procedural moves to set up a key vote to limit debate on a continuing resolution without a restriction on funding Planned Parenthood Monday evening.
When the Senate convened for an unusual Friday session, McConnell opened with praise for Boehner, highlighting his record of building a large GOP majority.
The House, with Boehner in his final weeks as speaker, is expected to go along with the Senate measure, meaning McConnell will be the de facto lead negotiator for Republicans until the House finalizes its Boehner succession plan. The stopgap bill funding the government through Dec. 11 means McConnell and his new top GOP counterpart in the House (be it current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California or someone else) will be thrust immediately into budget negotiations with Democrats that are widely expected to raise spending caps in current law.
And there's also the even bigger question of how to raise the debt limit as well as how to provide long-term funding for highway projects, two challenges that could be resolved just as Boehner heads for the exits, or perhaps after that.
Cruz has long criticized the Republican leaders from Kentucky and Ohio, and minutes after hearing from a reporter that Boehner had informed the House Republican Conference of his intentions, Cruz sounded a familiar tune.
"I have consistently tried to focus my efforts on urging leadership to do the right thing, whether it is current leaders or different leaders, Cruz told reporters at the Value Voters Summit. "I've privately urged them, 'Folks, stand up and lead. I will sing your praises.' I would be thrilled to appear at a press conference and talk about the brave, courageous, principled John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, if they would simply act in a way that I could say that truthfully."