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Roll Call

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.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have to settle on a legislative agenda that can be embraced by moderates such as Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) who are running for re-election, but also cause problems for incumbent Democrats. Doing so could require the GOP to reach a consensus on difficult issues such as entitlement reform and budget issues such as taxes and spending.

One Republican lobbyist with relationships in the Senate suggested that more than the Senate majority could depend on how effective Republicans are at generating an effective message.

“The Senate Republican leadership is going to have to get on some kind of message that they can govern and not just obstruct. The House leadership has a complete agenda that came out of their retreat,” the lobbyist said. “The stakes are very high. ... The current leadership will demonstrate some intellectual firepower and have a coordinated plan or they may get traded for a future draft choice in [the post-November election] leadership elections.”

Should former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney win the Republican presidential nomination, Thune and Blunt could serve as conduits between the GOP’s White House campaign and Senate GOP leadership, possibly making it easier to ensure message and strategic consistency. Both Senators endorsed Romney last year.

On the job for about a week, the new team was elected in December after Alexander made the unusual decision to voluntarily step down as Conference chairman midway through his two-year term. Only one member is new — Blunt — but two others are new to their positions: Barrasso and Thune, who is now the
No. 3 ranking Republican.

Alexander, a close personal friend and professional confidant of McConnell’s, is expected to be a valuable ally for the Minority Leader in his new role as a respected senior Member who can operate independently and is otherwise unconstrained by the political limitations of leadership.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) is retiring at year’s end, and the competition for his and other spots in the November leadership elections could cause friction on a team — and within a Conference — that has been cohesive during McConnell’s tenure as Minority Leader. But Senate Republicans are expected to remain unified — if for no other reason than Members are likely to have little tolerance for grandstanding or dissension given what’s at stake.

“Anyone who gets in the way of winning the majority will really frustrate Senators,” a former Republican Senate leadership aide said.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) and Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) are already locked in a battle for Whip, and Thune also is eyeing a bid for the No. 2 slot. Success or failure to win the majority this year could spur several other Members to challenge incumbents for leadership positions, including, potentially, McConnell.

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