Senate Republicans Face Leadership Choice
In less than 48 hours the Senate Republicans will gather in an ornate room just off the chamber floor to hold their secretive internal caucus leadership elections. Though incredibly arcane to outsiders, these races are the congressional equivalent of papal elections -- intramural affairs that often define the future direction of a party.
This week's gathering is unlike regularly scheduled leadership elections, which are held every two years shortly after the midterm and presidential elections. But Sen. Trent Lott's decision to quit just one year into his six-year term has created an unusual mid-session opening at the leadership table. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) is now running unopposed to succeed Lott as minority whip, the No. 2 spot.
Kyl's ascension has set up a battle for the No. 3 post, Republican conference chairman, shaping up along generational, stylistic and ideological battle lines. This position is responsible for shaping the message for Senate Republicans, arranging press conferences and pushing GOP senators onto TV and radio talk shows. In the previous decade the post was held by smiling firebrands, former Sens. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), both of whom loved to take rhetorical jabs at Democrats.
Three different Republicans have jostled for votes: Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Richard Burr (N.C.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas). Rumors have circulated since late last week that Hutchison was getting cold feet, and Capitol Briefing's alma mater, Roll Call, reported this morning that she has begun telling colleagues she would bow out of the race and remain in the No. 4 leadership post, chairwoman of the Policy Committee. (Subscription required)
If Hutchison does stay out of the Conference chairman race, that means there will be no other leadership races, leaving her in place at Policy and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) in place at the No. 5 position of vice-chairman of the conference.
Considering the appeals made by the trio of candidates, Thursday's vote in the Mansfield Room may say a lot about Senate Republicans and how they view their life in the minority right now. Here's a breakdown of those three candidates, with Hutchison being included regardless of the uncertainty of her status because she did wage a race for votes.
â€¢ Lamar Alexander: At 67, the former governor and cabinet secretary who was elected to his first term in the Senate five years ago is the oldest of the leadership candidates. From a generational standpoint, Alexander is closest to so-called "Old Bulls" such as retiring Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and John Warner (R-Va.). He draws the bulk of his support from the veteran members of the GOP conference and from key insiders such as Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), a close ally of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who declared his neutrality in the race yesterday. Alexander's camp stresses that he can be a consensus builder both within the ideological wings of the Republican Party and across the aisle. This is quite a different approach to the job than the highly partisan approach taken by Santorum. "I think the conference needs to decide what it's going to look like for the next few years and how it's going to rebuild itself," said Tom Ingram, Alexander's chief of staff. Having lost the race to be minority whip to Lott last year by one vote, some contend that Alexander has a leg up on the competition and potential for buyer's remorse since Lott has bolted so quickly for retirement.
â€¢ Richard Burr: Elected in 2004, Burr represents the firebrand wing of the conference. These are the fresher faces who want more confrontation with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Having just turned 52 last week, he's the youngest candidate for leadership. Burr has the backing of Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.), two conservatives who have at times used aggressive tactics to tie up the Senate and force votes on alleged pork-barrel spending they opposed. Interestingly, Burr is just one year younger than Lott when he made his bold insurgent bid against the establishment wing of the Republican conference in November 1994. Back then a 53-year-old Lott, just six years into his senatorial service, won the race for majority whip by one vote over a veteran Republican perceived to be more conciliatory and close to top GOP leaders. Lott's victory heralded a sea change in the way Republicans tactically fought with Democrats. Burr is perceived as the favored candidate of Lott now, and is hoping that history is on his side the way it was with Lott 13 years ago.
â€¢ Kay Bailey Hutchison. The only woman in elected GOP leadership since 2001, Hutchison had been running a stay-the-course campaign. Her operatives have argued that the current leadership team of 2007 has been highly effective at blocking Reid's agenda and that means Hutchison, 64, deserves a leadership promotion. In addition, she presents a shred of diversity compared to the otherwise all male (and all white) leadership team. But Hutchison has battled the perception that she really doesn't want to be in the Senate; she's openly discussed her desire to run for Texas governor in 2010 when Gov. Rick Perry (R) faces a term limit. Having just been burnt last November by Lott, asking for their leadership vote only to abandon them last week, Republicans appear leery of supporting another short-timer for a leadership post.
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