But the Arizona Republican thinks the new House GOP majority and his party’s strengthened Senate minority could allow him to whip votes to pass, rather than defeat, major legislation — a role usually reserved for his Democratic counterpart.
“Our effort now is not going to be just defensive, but a lot of it will be offensive — playing off of legislation the House sends to the Senate and trying to push that legislation forward,” Kyl said Friday during a 30-minute conversation in his office in the Hart Senate Office Building. “So it will not only be necessary to get 41 votes, sometimes it will be necessary to get 51 or perhaps even 60.”
Republicans spent much of the past two years with 41 Members, the minimum number required to sustain a filibuster. Whether on President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus bill of 2009, health care reform, the Wall Street overhaul or other legislation, Kyl’s job was to hold Republicans together in opposition to the Democrats. Although the administration and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) occasionally picked off a few Republicans, they usually remained united.
Republicans begin 2011 with 47 Senators. And Kyl, entering his fifth year as the Republican Whip, now faces the challenge of corralling a Conference less under siege, more ideologically diverse and composed of 13 freshmen — many of whom could prove fiercely independent from their more established colleagues, even by Senate standards.
Kyl is excited about the growth of his party but acknowledged that unity may be harder to achieve in the wake of the GOP’s power gain. Sen. Roy Blunt, a new member of the Whip team, agreed.
“You do always have the challenge as your Conference grows. People think they have the ability to do whatever they want to do, and their team is still successful because enough other people will do what the team needs done,” the Missouri Republican said. “When you’re looking at 47 Members instead of 41, obviously you can get to the 41 that matters in the Senate with several people still doing what they want to do. And that will be a challenge, but Jon Kyl is a great Whip.”
Indeed, Kyl said that while his Conference may have greater expectations that complicate his job, he also expects less partisanship from Senate Democrats.
“I think it will be hard for the Senate Democrats to bring bills to the floor that are pretty much straight party-line, hard-line Democrat proposals, because of the phenomenon of more moderate Democrats watching out for the next election and knowing that we can block anything with the 47 that we have,” Kyl said. “Almost by definition, they’re going to have to reach across the aisle.”
Kyl turns 69 in April and is up for re-election in 2012. He steadfastly refuses to discuss his political future with reporters. But he says his unwillingness has less to do with an inclination to retire than a disdain for a media culture that constantly focuses on elections to the detriment of bipartisan legislative achievement. If Kyl runs for a fourth term, he is considered a shoo-in at this early point in the election cycle.
Senators and political operatives who know him and have followed his career describe him as disciplined, hard-working, precise — a lawyer’s lawyer, some say, and above all, patient. A handful of individuals interviewed for this story all used that word unprompted when asked to describe the Arizona Republican.
“He works harder at his job than anybody I know, and he has incredible patience. And he really takes his job extremely seriously,” said Sen. John McCain (R), the senior member of Arizona’s Congressional delegation. “I wouldn’t have his job as the Whip. He has incredible patience.”
Kyl is viewed on both sides of the aisle as highly effective. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called him “a formidable opponent on the issues” who “always takes the time to be well-versed and prepared.”
But Kyl closed the 111th Congress with a defeat in his bid to block ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that Obama signed with Russia earlier in 2010.
Though Kyl said he did not whip the vote, which required a two-thirds majority for ratification, he led the Republican opposition and is disappointed in the outcome. Twelve years earlier, Kyl successfully killed an arms control treaty signed by then-President Bill Clinton.
“This was something that could have been done well but was not, and as a result it was less satisfactory from everyone’s standpoint. There was not time to do it adequately,” Kyl said. “I knew the treaty was not going to be defeated, but I felt I had to have — I had to make the case that it was a very bad way to legislate and that it demeans the Senate to just rubber-stamp an agreement.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.