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First-term Senate Republicans are jockeying for position and power in a Conference that could find itself in the majority 13 months from today.
Senators are ambitious by nature. But a burgeoning Republican caucus, a scarcity of available top committee and political positions and the lure of influencing the agenda in a GOP-controlled chamber could generate intense competition among a group of new Members who appear more impatient than those of past eras. This maneuvering, already under way, has been fueled partly by the unexpected choices of some veterans to step aside.
Twin decisions by Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) to retire and by Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) to relinquish his leadership post in January have sparked a scramble to advance, already drawing in Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) — and possibly fellow freshman Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.) — in a race for Conference vice chairman. Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Pat Toomey (Pa.) both serve on the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction and have been showing assertiveness typically reserved for veterans.
Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Barrasso, a candidate for GOP Policy Committee chairman in the leadership elections set for January, has shown how a newcomer can move up quickly. The Wyoming Senator played a key role for the caucus in 2009 and 2010 as Republicans tried to block President Barack Obama’s health care law, moving into leadership last year when Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) relinquished her post.
“I just want to work together with others to help improve legislation and help improve the lives of people from around the country and people in my home state of Wyoming,” Barrasso, an orthopedic surgeon elected in 2008, said in an interview. “It was just the coincidence that the No. 1 topic on debate and on the minds of the American people at the time [I arrived] was an area where I had a lot of expertise.”
First-term Senators interviewed for this story, and their staffs, offered similarly generic platitudes about helping their colleagues, the country — and “luck” — when asked to discuss strategy for career advancement in a chamber notoriously populated with ambitious yet sensitive egos. These Republicans were hesitant to embrace the “rising star” label or concede to internal political maneuvering.
“The Senate’s got a lot of people on both sides of the aisle who are well-known — some famous people,” one Republican Senator said. “But my sense is, the folks who perhaps are more low-key and work as a team are more successful in getting things done.”