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The process to replace Sen. Mitch McConnell in Republican leadership has begun

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The longest-serving Senate leader in U.S. history has an equally long legacy. Mitch McConnell is known for implementing his party's wish list and for blocking Democrats' priorities. Last month, McConnell announced he was stepping down from Republican leadership, raising the question of who replaces him. Republican Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota says a new leader should be independent, as opposed to someone who would kowtow to former President Trump. He spoke with our co-host Leila Fadel.

MIKE ROUNDS: It means that while you want to work with the administration, you also recognize that as a leader, you represent a different institution. And that's the way the Founding Fathers wanted it.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Now, some would say yes, McConnell criticized the former president. He laid blame for the January 6 attack on the Capitol at that - at Trump's door. He was critical of him in general, but he didn't vote to impeach, and he just endorsed him. So was he an independent voice?

ROUNDS: Yes, he was. If you listen to what he said, he made very clear the reason why impeachment was inappropriate at the time. He went back, and he looked at what the Founding Fathers had to say about it and whether or not you should open that door to impeaching former presidents.

FADEL: Is there unanimity now behind this nominee, despite the possibility that he may be convicted?

ROUNDS: What Senator McConnell is trying to do is to unify the party, and he is recognizing that the former president will probably be the nominee from the Republican Party. And what he is saying is, look, public policy is so important, and the direction of our country is so important that we need to look at a more conservative and stable approach to our foreign policy and our economic policy.

FADEL: Does it concern you, though, that he's facing so many criminal charges?

ROUNDS: Most certainly it should. We have to recognize that as being a part of the current events that we're all going to be watching. I mean, I think the entire country's going to be watching that.

FADEL: What do you want to see in a new Senate GOP leader? Right now, Senate minority whip John Thune, also of South Dakota, and Senator John Cornyn of Texas have thrown their hat in the ring. Can you tell us what each brings to the table and why you're supporting John Thune?

ROUNDS: Absolutely. First of all, we don't have a bad choice in this particular case. We've got two really decent individuals that have leadership capabilities and leadership experience. I'm supporting John Thune. I've known him for well over 30 years. We've worked together in state politics and here at the national level, both being in the United States Senate.

He is my friend. He thinks outside the box. He's a guy that understands politics. He will help, I believe, to be a little bit more open with the conference. Senator Cornyn is a great individual, a very experienced individual. But I just think right now is the right time for John Thune.

FADEL: Do you expect the field to get a lot more crowded?

ROUNDS: It's possible. It's a wide-open approach, and I know that some folks have wondered, well, you know, if Mitch announces right now that he wants to retire from the leadership position at the end of the year, should we do something right away? I think Mitch is giving everybody a chance to really do their due diligence and to think this thing out. I like the idea that he's given everybody a heads-up as to what his plans are.

Mitch is doing it at his own pace. He's not being pushed, but he also recognizes his age. He also recognizes and is setting an example for other individuals saying, you know what? I've had my time. I'm ready to get out, but I'm going to give everybody an opportunity to plan this thing out and to plan for the future.

FADEL: We really saw acrimonious fights in the House when the choice for speaker was in the House for Kevin McCarthy, and then Mike Johnson - battles that ultimately limited their power and were very public fights that the American people watched. Will we see the same kind of thing in the Senate?

ROUNDS: I don't think so. We saw that same spectacle as well. Many of us were disappointed in it. But the House is designed by the Founding Fathers to be extremely emotional. Every single member of the House is up for election every two years. But the Senate was designed to be different.

FADEL: Now, the leadership vote, though, could happen before the election. Correct?

ROUNDS: Well, it's not designed that way right now. If a majority decided that they wanted to, they could call for an election. That can happen. And I know that there's been some rumors about that, but I've seen no motion to get to that point at this stage of the game. And I think there's probably a pretty fair number of us that would prefer to take a more stable approach, maintain Senator McConnell as the leader until such time as the elections are complete. And at that stage of the game, you have new members hopefully coming in.

FADEL: Republican Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota. I thank you for your time.

ROUNDS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Devan Schwartz
Devan Schwartz is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition. He is an experienced audio professional who, in addition to his work with NPR, has worked with such organizations as BBC, Slate, the New York Times, and various public radio stations.
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