Senate GOP chooses McConnell to lead for another term

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republicans welcomed the first woman to their leadership team in years Wednesday as they sought to address the optics of the GOP side of the aisle being dominated by men.


Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst called her selection to the leadership ranks "a great honor."


"It's a great opportunity for those of us that are in some of the younger classes (of senators) to have our voices heard," Ernst said.


Senators chose Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for another term leading Republicans and Chuck Schumer for Democrats in closed-door party elections Wednesday that lacked the high drama underway on the House side in the midterm election fallout.


McConnell said he'll be talking with Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, after Democrats took control of the House from Republicans in last week's election, on ways to work together. Pelosi hopes to become speaker in the new Congress.


"We'll be looking for ways, now that we have divided government again, to make some progress for the country," he said.


Both McConnell and Schumer were chosen as leader by acclamation, according to those familiar with the private caucus meetings. McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who expanded GOP ranks in last week's midterm, faced no contest for the job. Democrats returned Schumer's entire leadership team, despite the failure to capture the majority in the midterms.


The only contested leadership position was Ernst's race down-ballot race for vice-chair of the Republican conference. It's the first time Republicans will have a woman in leadership since 2010, something GOP leaders wanted to remedy.


The stark gender divide for Republicans was highlighted during the Supreme Court hearings for Brett Kavanaugh and an election that ushered in more than 100 women to Congress, most of them Democrats. Ernst, a military veteran in her first term, beat Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer in closed-door voting.


During a brief photo op in McConnell's Capitol office ahead of voting, McConnell presented his newly elected senators who will take their seats in January.


Among them was Florida's Rick Scott, the Republican governor whose race against incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson remains undecided.


McConnell said later he was confident Scott would become the 53rd senator in the GOP majority.


Schumer said President Donald Trump is lying when he claims voter fraud in Florida's election. Schumer said he was confident Nelson would return as Florida's senator, as long as every vote was counted.


"President Trump and Gov. Scott have just lied," Schumer said. "They've said there's fraud when their own Republican officials in Florida have said there's no fraud."


Schumer portrayed Senate Democrats as emboldened, despite midterm losses, by an election he characterized as a rejection of the GOP tax cuts and Republican efforts to end the Affordable Care Act.


Even in the minority, Schumer said Senate Democrats will push for the party's broader congressional agenda of lowering health care costs, investing in infrastructure and implementing good government reforms to put a check on the Trump administration, which he called "the most ethically challenged in history."


"We will be relentless here in the Senate," said Schumer, flanked by his leadership team. "Senate Democrats are committed to fighting to make those ideas a reality in this upcoming Congress."


In the House, the elections were unfolding differently, after Democrats won control of the chamber, putting Republicans in the minority.


Republican Kevin McCarthy is poised to take over the shrunken House GOP caucus in closed-door elections.


The race for minority leader is McCarthy's to lose, but the Californian must fend off a challenge from conservative Rep. Jim Jordan, who has support from the right flank and outside groups as a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus.


"We've got a plan," McCarthy told reporters as he ducked into a closed-door meeting of House Republicans late Tuesday.


Trump has stayed largely on the sidelines ahead of elections that will determine party leadership.


On Wednesday, Jordan told "Fox & Friends" the GOP lost its House majority because it didn't deliver on promises to Americans to secure the U.S.-Mexico border, fund Trump's wall and replace the Obama health care law.


"Some key things we told them we were going to do, we didn't," Jordan said.


At Tuesday's meeting, McCarthy and Jordan encountered frustration, finger-pointing and questions as lawmakers sorted through an election defeat and began considering new leadership for the next congressional session.


Republicans complained about the unpopularity of the GOP tax law they blamed for losses in New York and other key states, some attendees told reporters after the meeting. Some in the meeting said Republicans should have tried harder to fulfill Trump's priorities, like funding for the wall with Mexico. They also warned that they need a new fundraising mechanism to compete with the small-dollar online donors that powered Democrats to victory.


"There's a little rawness still," Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., who is running unopposed for a down-ballot position as vice chair of the GOP conference, told reporters outside the meeting room. "But there's an opportunity for us to come together and get single-focused on the message."


Most GOP lawmakers, though, prefer McCarthy's more affable approach, and he remained favored to win Wednesday.


GOP Whip Steve Scalise, the Louisiana Republican who was gravely wounded in last year's congressional baseball practice shooting and is running unopposed for another term in leadership, said McCarthy "knows what he needs to do" to win over his colleagues — and win back the majority — and is well-positioned to do both.


"You always look in the mirror and see what you can do better," Scalise said as he entered the room. Republicans, he said, "need to do a better job of letting people know what we stand for."


Rounding out the GOP leadership team will be Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who wants to bring a more aggressive stance to the GOP's communications and messaging strategy in the No. 3 spot.


The biggest leadership race is for Pelosi's return as speaker and a group of House Democrats seeking to stop her claim they have the votes to block her. But Pelosi remains she's confident she'll have enough support to win and challenged her opponents Wednesday to put forward an alternative candidate.


"Come on in, the water's warm," Pelosi said.

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