WASHINGTON — A new chapter in Sen. Mitch McConnell’s 14-year run as Senate Republican leader is set to begin in dramatic fashion Wednesday, with the GOP majority hanging in the balance and his members badly split on a fundamental question of democracy.

After four years burnishing his reputation under President Trump as a fierce conservative tactician, McConnell appears to be entering a more challenging era – a return to a period of GOP jockeying and infighting likely to be further complicated by Trump’s continued presence.

It remains unclear whether McConnell will be serving as majority or minority leader in the new Congress, depending on the results of two Georgia runoffs Tuesday. But already he has moved to put Trump in the rearview mirror over the past few weeks – spurning his call for $2,000 stimulus checks, leading an override of a high-stakes veto and, most dramatically, rejecting the president’s baseless claims of a stolen election.

When Congress meets for a joint session Wednesday to certify the electoral college vote, McConnell will speak first in the Senate on any challenges, according to a person familiar with his plans. That will be an opportunity to make an early and definitive statement that Trump lost and it is time to move on.

That kind of statement would come too late for his critics, including some inside the GOP who believe McConnell waited too long to speak out against Trump’s questioning of the election and did not do enough to block senators from challenging the count.

Yet any gesture rejecting Trump’s claims will inflame the GOP’s hard-right base and stoke a conflict inside his own ranks: At least a dozen of McConnell’s colleagues – roughly a quarter of his conference – plan to support challenges to some states’ tallies over McConnell’s explicit warnings.

The split is not only an embarrassing spectacle for the veteran leader but also heralds a messy few years ahead, as Republican senators position themselves to avoid primary challenges in their 2022 reelection campaigns and, for some, find favor with GOP voters for the 2024 presidential nomination.

“The Republican Party is splintering,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. “The Democratic Party is not without its challenges and its divisions, but when you have a significant portion of your caucus that moves towards authoritarianism, that’s not the same as differences about the configuration of the health-care system or which climate solution you want.

“This is more foundational than that, and that’s what he’s contending with,” he added. “There’s no sitting down and huddling, no Lyndon Johnson-ing your way out of this thing.”

It is, however, a familiar position for the Kentucky Republican, who sparred a decade ago with acolytes of a nascent tea party movement. Those lawmakers wanted a more aggressive approach out of McConnell, one that prized the fight over any results the fight might produce.

The clash culminated in the 16-day government shutdown of 2013, when Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, joined with a cadre of hard-right House Republicans to block federal spending legislation to defund the Affordable Care Act.

In his 2016 memoir, titled “The Long Game,” McConnell dismissed the attempt by a “few rogue Republicans” to whip up conservative voters over a goal they simply did not have the votes to accomplish: “I don’t like the politics of futile gesture – we were elected not to make a point, but a difference – and I also didn’t like that some members of Congress were going along with it.”

With Trump rallying his supporters behind evidence-free claims of election fraud, McConnell found himself working in recent weeks to avoid another futile gesture – an extended series of challenges to the electoral votes cast by states won by President-elect Joe Biden, which are destined to fail and end with Biden’s inauguration Jan. 20.

Still, numerous GOP senators defied McConnell’s pleas and volunteered to join with scores of House Republicans to support challenges at the Wednesday proceeding – thus forcing each chamber into up to two hours of debate on each state’s electoral tally followed by a vote in each chamber that is sure to be used by Trump’s supporters as a political litmus test.

First to defy McConnell was Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., a Yale-trained attorney who has enthusiastically taken up Trump’s populist banner and rejected many of the pieties of establishment Republican politics. Following Hawley was a group of 11 senators led by Cruz, who built his case for the 2016 presidential nomination on his clashes with McConnell before throwing his political lot in wholeheartedly with Trump. Also planning to lodge a challenge is Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., who is competing in one of the two Tuesday runoffs.

Cruz is planning to strike first Wednesday by joining with Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., and other GOP lawmakers to challenge the 11 electoral votes certified by Arizona.

A person familiar with Cruz’s plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose strategy, said the objection to Arizona is largely about pushing for Cruz’s goal of establishing an electoral commission early on in the process, not necessarily about the specifics related to the state. Arizona will come first alphabetically among the list of battleground states Wednesday.

The other senators are working on parallel tracks. Loeffler plans to object to results from her home state, while Hawley has pledged to contest the outcome in Pennsylvania. Electoral votes from Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin could also be challenged. Debating and voting on each state could take three hours or more, pushing the joint session well into Thursday.

The objections are all but certain to fail in the Democratic-controlled House and the GOP-led Senate, where a growing number of Republicans have called the challenges dangerous to democracy.

Critics of McConnell, who declined to comment for this article, argue that the push from one-quarter of the GOP conference to rebel against the electoral college results Wednesday amounts to a failure of his leadership on what is otherwise a clear constitutional issue.

“Mitch McConnell stood silently by and let Donald Trump unfurl these conspiracies and lies for the last two months,” said Amanda Carpenter, a former top aide to Cruz and former senator Jim DeMint, R-S.C., both frequent foils to McConnell. “There were many times to speak out and say this was a no-go.”

Carpenter, now a political commentator, added: “He wasn’t capable of exercising true leadership . . . in a constitutional direction because he doesn’t have the respect of the conference.”

Yet even those senators who have chosen to defy McConnell in this instance have been careful not to couch their decision as a personal rebuke of the longtime leader, who handily won reelection in November to both his Senate seat and his leadership post. Freshman Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., like many of the other vote-challenging senators, said his decision simply followed the will of his constituents.

“The leader’s priority is always to keep the majority, and I respect that,” he said of McConnell, adding that “some of the greatest Super Bowl champions had a day of division at some course in the season. I think this will make us stronger.”

No new GOP senator aside from the 13 Republicans indicated Tuesday that they would join in Wednesday’s objections, while a fresh wave of Senate Republicans announced they will vote to uphold the electoral college results from any disputed state. That included Tim Scott of South Carolina, Jerry Moran of Kansas and John Boozman of Arkansas, who said in a statement Tuesday that lawmakers “cannot erode the ideals that generations of Americans have fought to protect simply because we do not like the outcome of the election.”

Meanwhile, other GOP senators who had already announced their intentions to dispute the election results reinforced that position. Marshall said he plans to formally join the objections for Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania, while Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., another newly elected senator, said he would also object alongside Cruz to the counting of Arizona’s electors.

“Elections are too important to allow significant deviations from state law, and I am hopeful that the process tomorrow will at least shine a bright light on the need to investigate potential wrongdoing and to propose reforms,” Tuberville said.

Regardless of whether Republicans maintain their majority, the road ahead for McConnell is unlikely to get much smoother.

For one, the glue he used to keep Senate Republicans together during the Trump administration – his devotion to confirming conservative judges to the federal bench – will no longer be in the toolbox under a Democratic president. Instead, should he remain majority leader, he will immediately be faced with how aggressively to treat Biden’s Cabinet nominees, whom he could simply block from floor consideration.

Even in a 50-50 minority where ties are broken by Democratic Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, McConnell’s toolbox will not be completely emptied. Republicans would retain use of the filibuster, which will require Democrats to persuade at least 10 Republicans to advance any significant legislation – including routine federal spending bills and other must-pass vehicles that can be points of significant leverage for the minority.

In one recent interview published in the Louisville Courier-Journal, McConnell said he would treat Biden – a friend – “a hell of a lot better than Chuck Schumer ever treated Donald Trump,” referring to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. The question he is likely to face is: How well are presidential hopefuls such as Cruz, Hawley and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., not to mention Trump himself, going to let him treat Biden?

Former McConnell aide Antonia Ferrier said his success and durability as the GOP leader has been due to “his ability to know when to fight, when not to fight and to also know where his colleagues are.”

“He knows what his priorities are. He knows the things he needs to weigh in on and he knows what he doesn’t,” said Ferrier, who advised McConnell as he clashed with Cruz and other conservatives during the Obama administration. “And he has an ability to see three, four steps down the field, whereas a lot of people, particularly in politics, can’t.”

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