Mitch McConnell makes Senate history as longest-serving Republican leader

By Ted Barrett, CNN

(CNN) -- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reached a key Senate milestone Tuesday, surpassing former Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas to become the longest-serving Republican leader in the chamber's history.

Lawmakers from both praised McConnell's leadership since 2007, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, the second-ranking GOP member in the chamber.

"We all know he's whip smart. He is an impressive strategist. He understands the Senate better than anyone else here," said Cornyn, who praised McConnell for not seeking out the spotlight and working behind the scenes for the betterment of his party and country.

"That takes a remarkable sense of self-confidence and team spirit that not everybody has," said Cornyn, who would like to replace him as GOP leader when McConnell eventually gives up the post, on the Senate floor Tuesday.

The milestone elicited kind words even from his Democratic counterpart.

"It's no secret we disagree on a whole lot of issues, both political and philosophical, but that doesn't mean we can't or don't work together or that I don't admire the qualities that have helped make him the longest serving Republican leader," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said on the chamber floor.

"He understands his caucus and represents them well," Schumer said. "He know how to fight and he knows how to cooperate. The job is not an easy one. So it's a testament to his qualities that he has done it longer that anyone in the history of the Senate."

McConnell, who is 76, has been determined and willing to take tough steps to achieve his political and legislative goals. He did that when he boldly blocked Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama's choice for the Supreme Court, and worked to install Trump's pick Neil Gorsuch instead.

He's also patient and willing to doing the plodding groundwork needed for legislative victories, like the ones he's trying to set up this summer when he canceled the August recess, a step he believes will give voters reasons to keep Republicans in control of the Senate. They include clearing a backlog of nominations and passing several lower-profile bills that McConnell says are evidence of good governing.

"He's a terrific leader," said Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, an ally of McConnell's, last week. "He's very intelligent. He pays attention to the rules. He's very good at the rules."

McConnell said last week he wants Cornyn, to stay in the Republican leadership ranks once term limits force the Texan to give up the No. 2 job at the end of the year. Cornyn said Thursday he will stay and use that position to launch an eventual run for GOP leader once McConnell leaves the post.

McConnell certainly has his critics even from within his own party. Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson has been one of the few members of the GOP conference to publicly challenge him.

"I've primarily been a critic of this place," Johnson told CNN. "I don't envy the (House speaker) or any leader around here. You are literally trying to herd cats."

But Johnson said there is a "real level of disgust" with some conservatives across the country because the GOP-led Senate hasn't carried out its promises.

"In general, what I hear from the conservative base in Wisconsin is, why aren't you guys supporting Trump? Where's the funding for the wall? But specifically, why didn't you fix Obamacare," Johnson said. "The problem we had -- and this wasn't the leader's fault -- we had Republican senators who didn't honor their promise to repeal it."

Freshman Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy expressed frustration that McConnell hasn't made it possible for there to be more votes on amendments in the Senate. But he also praised McConnell for doing a tough job well.

"McConnell tries to make the mules plow," Kennedy said, adding that the Kentucky Republican is "tougher than a two-dollar steak."

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