WASHINGTON, Nov 16 (Reuters) - Top U.S. Senate Republican Mitch McConnell held off a challenge to his leadership on Wednesday as some of Donald Trump's closest allies in Congress lashed out at top Republicans and their party squeaked out a narrower-than-expected House majority in the midterm election.
McConnell fended off the first challenge in his nearly 16-year reign as party chief, after Senator Rick Scott tried to unseat him as minority leader, contending that the "D.C. swamp" was to blame for the party's inability to win a Senate majority.
That bid failed, even after Trump had repeatedly called for McConnell's ouster and promoted Scott as a replacement. McConnell drew Trump's ire by recognizing Democrat Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election. Trump, who launched his own 2024 White House candidacy on Tuesday, falsely claims he lost because of fraud.
"I'm not, in any way, offended by having an opponent or having a few votes in opposition," an elated-looking McConnell told reporters at a news conference after the vote.
Despite Republican hopes for a "red wave" of support in the Nov. 8 elections, they failed to reverse Democrats' razor-thin Senate majority. They won a narrow House majority, having won the 218 seats needed, with eight still uncalled. Democrats have won 209, according to projections by Edison Research.
Thirty-seven Republicans voted for McConnell, who is now positioned to become the longest-serving party leader in Senate history next year, while 10 supported Scott and one voted "present," according to senators.
"Although the results of today's elections weren't what we hoped for, this is far from the end of our fight to Make Washington Work," Scott said in a statement.
Republican Senator Mike Braun, who backed Scott, told reporters that the unsuccessful challenge registered the concerns of conservatives who want a bigger say in decision-making and said the contest could benefit McConnell as leader.
"He won with authority," Braun said. "If he embraces what some of the members of the caucus have been wanting to get a little resonance on, he's stronger."
McConnell and Scott both addressed the gathering, which included newly elected Trump-backed Senate Republicans, including J.D. Vance and Ted Budd.
Scott and his supporters have criticized McConnell for not putting forward a party agenda during the midterm campaign.
NO RULE CHANGES IN SENATE
McConnell showed no sign of changing the way the conference does business to accommodate conservatives who want to have more input in decisions.
But other Republicans have said it is time for the party to move on from Trump, after many of his endorsed House and Senate candidates lost their races.
"President Trump has lost three (elections) in a row. And if we want to start winning, we need a new leader," Senator Mitt Romney told reporters.
In the House, conservative Republicans continued to bash party leader Kevin McCarthy, a day after he overcame a challenger for the chamber's top job of House speaker.
"Minority Leader McCarthy still doesn't have the votes to become the next House speaker. Yesterday's vote shows there is increasing frustration with the status quo," Representative Andy Biggs, who challenged the California Republican but lost in a 188-31 vote, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
"The American people want us to turn a page," Biggs said.
While Senate Republicans met in the morning to vote for party leaders, House Republicans met later in the day to consider chamber rules for the next Congress. The party's rules package could take weeks to finalize.
The hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus, whose members include Biggs, is pushing for rules changes that would, among other things, make it easier for members to oust a speaker.
McConnell offered his own take on the party's weak midterm performance.
"Here's the problem," he said. "We underperformed among voters who did not like President Biden's performance, among independents and among moderate Republicans who looked at us and concluded: too much chaos, too much negativity. And we turned off a lot of these centrist voters."
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