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New Roster of GOP Leaders Looks to 2012

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (center) and his Republican leadership team are tasked with developing and pushing a governing agenda that appeals to voters and keeps Senate Democrats off-balance.

The stakes are high and the challenges many as a new Senate Republican leadership team attempts to find its bearings and lay a foundation for winning the majority in November.

Four seats separate Republicans from Senate control, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) could find his power strengthened in the coming months as his new team looks to the veteran Member for guidance in navigating the political minefield that could upend their quest to flip the chamber. Among their challenges: developing an appealing agenda, coordinating with an unpredictable House Republican majority and avoiding internal dissension in advance of the post-election leadership elections that could further shake up the Conference.

Republican leaders, who were just installed last week to account for the decision by Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) to step down mid-session as Conference chairman, did not dispute the challenges facing their Conference this year.

But Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.), recently promoted to the No. 4 leadership position from the No. 5 vice chairman slot, indicated that he relishes the opportunity. He said he far preferred it to the beginning of the 2009 cycle, when the minority Conference was in a deep hole and virtually powerless to block President Barack Obama’s agenda.

“We’ll continue to work together under Mitch’s leadership,” Barrasso said Monday during a brief interview. “We are going to be aggressively on offense all year.”

Perhaps the Senate Republicans’ biggest challenge is to simultaneously develop and push a governing agenda that appeals to voters and keeps Senate Democrats off-balance. But they’ll need to do that without creating uncomfortable daylight between the House Republican majority and the party’s eventual presidential nominee. 

The task of developing an agenda falls to Sen. John Thune (S.D.), who has replaced Alexander as the Senate Republicans’ chief messaging strategist.

Although House and Senate Republicans coordinated through much of last year, that cooperation broke down in December when most Senate Republicans supported a short-term extension of the payroll tax holiday, while House Republican revolted. Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the new Conference vice chairman and a former House GOP leader, will likely be charged with reaching out to House Republicans to avoid similar problems.

But it could remain a challenge for Thune and the new Senate GOP leadership team as it crafts public relations and political strategies going forward.

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