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Sen. Mitch McConnell is illuminating the legal conservative route for Republicans

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Much of the credit for the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade goes to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell helped install the conservative majority on the high court, and he may not be finished. If Republicans win control of the Senate in November, Congress could vote to further restrict abortion. NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh reports.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Even before the court upended decades of precedent, abortion-rights supporters and anti-abortion advocates agreed on one thing.

MARJORIE DANNENFELSER: There would not be a change in the court had it not been for Leader McConnell's vision.

BRIAN FALLON: I think Mitch McConnell might be the single most impactful person in the Republican Party for bringing about the moment that the legal conservative movement is at right now.

WALSH: That's Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a political group that raises money and backs anti-abortion candidates, and Brian Fallon, executive director of Demand Justice, a progressive group advocating for federal court reforms. Fallon disagrees politically with McConnell but says he plays the long game, getting young conservatives confirmed. He says Democrats have shied away from the notion that the Supreme Court is a political entity. But McConnell, in his words, is obsessive about it.

FALLON: I also don't think our party, the Democratic Party, has matched the Republican Party's unique focus on the judiciary as a venue that is worth strategizing around.

WALSH: McConnell told NPR in an interview in May, after an early version of the decision overturning Roe leaked, that his focus on the federal judiciary wasn't motivated by abortion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MITCH MCCONNELL: My interest in this was unrelated to any particular issue.

WALSH: He defended the court's ability to take a position that runs counter to a majority of Americans' views on abortion rights, pointing to a decision in 1989 allowing flag burning, which he said most people wanted to prohibit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MCCONNELL: So for the Supreme Court, on any issue, to reach a decision contrary to public opinion is exactly what the Supreme Court is about. It's to protect basic rights, even when majorities are in favor of something else. It happens all the time. So I don't think that's particularly unusual.

WALSH: When McConnell entered the Senate in 1985, confirmation hearings for high court nominees were called judicial wars. The contentious process that led to the defeat of Robert Bork's nomination to serve on the Supreme Court galvanized conservatives. Dannenfelser says they viewed the court as stepping into the place of elected leaders.

DANNENFELSER: I think the reason that the abortion issue is so central is because it's a prime example of judiciary taking over a legislative role. And every confirmation battle after the Bork hearing was very clear and unstated that abortion was in the subtext of almost everything, even though nobody would talk about it.

WALSH: McConnell blasted then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2013 for eliminating the filibuster for circuit court judges and predicted that move would come back to haunt Democrats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCONNELL: Say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, you'll regret this. And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think.

WALSH: But when Justice Scalia died in 2016, McConnell was the majority leader. He blocked the confirmation process for Merrick Garland, President Obama's nominee to fill the vacancy before the 2016 election. After Trump was elected, McConnell changed the rules so his nominee for that opening, Neil Gorsuch, could be confirmed with a simple majority.

Antonia Ferrier, McConnell's former spokeswoman, says the Garland move helped shape the current court and acknowledges while it may not be consistent, it was focused on a singular goal.

ANTONIA FERRIER: But from a position of trying to make sure that the nation's highest court had more conservative justices, he met that sort of test and has transformed the court.

WALSH: Trump and McConnell didn't always agree, but they did form a powerful partnership when it came to stacking the bench. Here's McConnell at a Trump rally in his home state of Kentucky in 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCONNELL: Eighty-four new federal judges already this Congress. That's already a record, Mr. President. Keep sending them our way, and we'll keep confirming them and change the court system forever. Thank you for being here.

WALSH: During the Trump administration, the Senate confirmed 234 federal judges, including three Supreme Court justices - conservatives, most young, white and male. Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn said there are a lot of issues that press for the attention of the Senate leader. But for McConnell...

JOHN CORNYN: He understands it. Senators come and go, but federal judges stay for a long time. And so I think he's seen that as an important stabilizing influence on the U.S. government and on the country.

WALSH: President Biden says Roe will be on the ballot in the November election. Back in May, this is what McConnell said about what the political impact could be.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MCCONNELL: I think it will be certainly heavily debated in state legislative and governor's races because the court will have, in effect, returned this issue to the political process. My guess is, in terms of the impact on federal races, I think it's probably going to be a wash.

WALSH: If McConnell does become majority leader again, he could face pressure from his party's base to move a nationwide ban on abortion.

Deirdre Walsh, NPR News, Capitol Hill.

(SOUNDBITE OF MODERATOR'S "EARLY BIRDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.