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A Senate Freedom Caucus? No Need

From left, Lee, Dean Heller and Sessions arrive for a Senate Republican Steering Committee lunch in the Capitol. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The House Freedom Caucus has shown conservatives the far-right can have an impact on the legislative process. But don't expect a similar group to spring up in the Senate; they already have one. Sort of. It's not that senators are less conservative — Republicans such as Ted Cruz of Texas, Jim Risch of Idaho or Jeff Sessions of Alabama would attest to that. And it's not that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is so much better liked than his former counterpart who was chased into retirement by the Freedom Caucus, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.  

Perhaps the main reason a Freedom Caucus is less likely in the Senate is attributable to the institution itself: Senators need to work together to get things done, but unlike House lawmakers, senators don't need a coalition to block things. If a key power of the Freedom Caucus is veto power over legislation, senators can erect procedural hurdles on their own.  

But the other, less recognized reason conservative senators are unlikely to form a Freedom Caucus-like group is because the Senate Republican Steering Committee already performs some of its functions.  

“It’s an important part of the process, at least it’s been important to me," said the committee's chairman, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. "It’s been a means by which we can help empower individual senators.”  

Unlike the House Steering Committees, which doles out committee assignments, the Senate Steering Committee has no such official function. Its most visible manifestation is its popular Wednesday lunch, which is open to the conference and has been a staple of Senate life since 1974.  

Like the Freedom Caucus, the Steering Committee is not an official committee, and membership is loosely defined. In fact — and this may sound familiar — no official roster is ever made public.  

While an official count of the group is kept under wraps, there are about a dozen "executive committee members" who pay mandatory dues to fund staff for the organization; other senators make voluntary contributions for access to committee services.  

Twenty-six senators, including McConnell, made salary contributions this year to the committee's executive director, James Wallner, according to LegiStorm. Around a dozen of those made higher contributions and are assumed to be executive committee members — the members who direct discussion and select the chairman. Roll Call confirm the following executive committee members: Marco Rubio of Florida, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, David Vitter of Louisiana, Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and Cruz and Sessions.  

Lee told Roll Call the staff keeps an eye on unanimous consent requests and makes sure members of the group know "their procedural options, their procedural rights."  

As chairman, Lee also attends Republican leadership meetings, even though he's not a member of GOP leadership. One member of leadership, Cornyn, has  been on the executive committee for years, he said, and together with Lee, both help keep an open dialogue between the committee and leadership. In addition, other leaders attend the Wednesday lunch.  

"I think part of the idea was that talking to each other was important because a lot of misunderstandings occur because of a lack of communication — and people start thinking in conspiratorial terms and the like," Cornyn said of the relationship between Steering and leadership. "I think it’s actually been very constructive.”  

"We’re in different roles," Lee said of leadership. "I don’t have their role and they don’t have mine."  

Lee said his role involves asking a lot of questions. "Asking the right questions so that our members are informed of the process, of where it’s going, of how we might be able to improve a particular legislative proposal, or identifying legislation that we either support or oppose," he said.  

Unlike the Republican Study Committee and the Freedom Caucus, the Senate Republican Steering Committee doesn't write legislation or take official positions. It primarily focuses on floor tactics and keeping members apprised of conservative positions.  

"Our members make up their own mind and there’s no pressure if there’s a disagreement or somebody does it a different way," said Sessions, a former chairman. "It’s a nice fellowship and a nice opportunity to discuss possible strategies and sometimes help each other advance a common goal."  

Sen. John McCain said that while he attends the weekly lunch, he's never found it necessary to join because he is confident his own relationships among his fellow Republicans are good. And the Arizona Republican doesn't see the committee and leadership as adversaries.  

"I think that they have an impact and a more conservative voice is heard and considered, but I’ve never contemplated or heard of the Steering Committee basically openly confronting the leadership," McCain said. "It’s been a much more collaborative effort."  

It hasn't always been defined by good relations. In 2007, then-Minority Whip Trent Lott quit the committee in a dust-up over legislative tactics with then-Sen. Jim DeMint and his aides.  

In July, leadership was angered when a staffer solicited outside groups like Heritage Action for America to support a procedural move by Lee targeting the Affordable Care Act.  

While dismantling the law is a GOP priority, many senators feared Lee's move to lower procedural thresholds undermined Senate traditions. Afterward, Lee denied knowledge of the staffer's intentions and apologized to leadership.  

Sen. Deb Fischer stepped down from the executive committee around that time, but the Nebraska Republican told Roll Call the reason was "budgetary" and had nothing to do with the staffer incident.  

Recently, Lee claimed a committee victory when he, Cruz and Rubio pushed for the budget reconciliation process to target Obamacare. That was a notable exception to claiming publicity. Many committee actions are holds on legislation that the chairman does on behalf of members.  

Risch wouldn't directly confirm he was an executive committee member but said his contribution to shared staff salary would suggest he was, said that will both Senate Steering and the House Freedom Caucus were private, the Senate panel tended to be more guarded.  

The Idaho Republican said his impression was that the Freedom Caucus "attempts to go in a different direction than where leadership is trying to take the caucus." In contrast, Risch said he wants to work with his conference's leadership to tug legislation to the right, conceding there's usually more votes in the middle.  

"At the end of the day, those of us on the right side, particularly those of us on the far-right side, are not going to prevail," Risch said. "I know that, and I don't get angry about it. I accept reality."  

Ultimately, Risch said: "The most important thing here is to govern."  

"I have a lot of good friends who are conservatives and they get angry and want to do this and want to do that, and I say 'Look, if you guys don't govern, they'll throw you out of here so quick it'll make your head spin, and then, instead of giving speeches on the floor of the Senate, you can be down on the corner on the peach box giving a speech,'" Risch said.  

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