Trump’s staying power—politically, if not in office—is certainly the main factor complicating McConnell’s hold on his conference now. Republicans like Hawley and Cruz have presidential ambitions in 2024 and are making a blatant play for the president’s base in the hope that Trump loyalists will remember their fight in the years ahead. McConnell’s reputation as an all-powerful parliamentary mastermind, meanwhile, has veered toward myth in recent years: Democrats have cast him as a cynical, even diabolical, obstacle to progressive achievement in the Senate, and to burnish his own standing among conservatives, McConnell has been eager to embrace his image as a villain of the left. He has crowed about the maneuver that defined his tenure as majority leader before Trump took office, whereby he denied then-President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Merrick Garland, so much as a hearing in the Senate before the 2016 election. Although the move fell well within the Senate’s Constitutional prerogative, it defied long-standing norms and has left McConnell with little claim to the institutional high ground as he tries to keep rank-and-file Republicans in check.

Still, Democrats are looking to the Senate leader to act more forcefully than he has, and to declare publicly what he has, so far, said to his fellow Republicans only in private. “McConnell needs to rise to the occasion and decide how much the Constitution means to him,” Representative Adam Schiff of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told The Atlantic. “He can paper over it, try to ignore it, dance around it, but anything less than a full-throated rebuke of this attack on our peaceful transfer of power will tar his reputation indelibly.”