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Sen. Richard Burr is asserting himself.
The North Carolina Republican, well-liked by most but occasionally criticized for lacking a killer instinct, intends to quell the doubters. Burr joined the open Whip race last month, challenging a candidate deemed an overwhelming favorite. And until that contest heats up, he is preparing an ambitious legislative agenda that includes the introduction of a blueprint to overhaul Medicare.
Burr, the Chief Deputy Whip under retiring Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), discussed his decision to seek the No. 2 Republican leadership post on Wednesday during a 30-minute interview with Roll Call. North Carolina's senior Senator entered the contest against National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) just days after Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) dropped out, raising some eyebrows in the process.
"I've been doing it for a while. I feel I can be very effective in that role," Burr said of whipping.
But it takes more than counting votes to become Whip, and the North Carolinian's political strength can be found in the relationships he has fostered and cultivated over 10 years in the House and now seven years in the Senate.
Burr has developed close, personal ties to influential GOP Members, including Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), and with an ideological cross section of the Senate Republican Conference. That factor could work in his favor in any head-to-head matchup against Cornyn, whose leadership of the NRSC has been universally lauded.
The Texan in 2010 led the Republicans back from the brink of irrelevance, presiding over a seven-seat gain in an election year that was initially forecast as another uphill battle for the GOP. But in 2012, he may lead the GOP into the majority. Burr acknowledged he is the underdog in the race, but he described his wealth of relationships and connections to a new generation of Republican Senators as a potential edge.
"John deserves a lot of credit for '10 and what I think will be the success of '12. But what the Senatorial committee did was the coordinated support of all the Membership," Burr said. "There are certainly Members who are going to be influenced by the help that the Senatorial Committee provided. But I don't think that that's necessarily overshadowed by the individual support that those Members have gotten from a host of people in the Senate. It's just hard to weigh that until you go down and sit and talk to them."
"I look at leadership elections in a very simple way," Burr continued. "I will sit down with every Member of the Republican Conference, I'll ask them for their support, I'll know when I leave if I'm in the game or not. My only hope is that every Member will allow that opportunity to happen."
Burr, 55, acknowledged that his 2010 re-election victory liberated him to more aggressively pursue policy and political goals. His immediate goals are legislative, and they include a few bipartisan initiatives, including bills with Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), to reauthorize a program that protects against biological and chemical weapons attacks, and an energy reform package with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). He also has his Medicare reform plan, developed jointly with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
Burr serves as ranking member on Veterans' Affairs and earlier this year snagged a coveted spot on the Finance Committee when Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) resigned. Burr happily relinquished a more senior position on Energy and Natural Resources to accept the appointment to Finance, a panel with broad jurisdiction and a prime spot from which to raise campaign funds.
One Republican lobbyist who closely monitors the Senate said Burr has the potential to move up in leadership, suggesting that he would make a good NRSC chairman and that that could be another way for him to ascend. "Burr is well-respected in the Conference as a serious policy guy. He is a highly personable guy," the lobbyist said. "He has also been working with Conference members for years as Kyl's chief deputy, so he is a known commodity."
Burr gives the Republican leadership team high marks for navigating a series of political minefields this year — among them the spring battle over a continuing resolution that was needed to prevent a government shutdown, the summer debate over the debt ceiling that went to the brink, and this fall's fight over jobs-related legislation. The Senator also credited the tea-party-inspired freshman class of 2010 for making the GOP Conference a more cohesive bunch.
The North Carolinian sees this group of conservative upstarts as his natural allies. But Burr additionally believes that his penchant for legislating and broad policy experience could make his brand of leadership attractive to veteran Republicans and those who veer more toward the party's establishment. Burr said the Whip position requires particular skills for which he's suited, citing his decade in the House as critical to his experience.
"The communication between leadership and our Members is absolutely crucial," Burr said. "Leadership has to reflect that generational makeup of the Members ... The friendships and associations that I have on both sides of the aisle, it's understanding that younger group — we're really driven by the same things, we're after the same things."