Kyl Whips Quietly, but Effectively

Posted March 16, 2009 at 6:44pm

While he lacks the sizzle and spark of his predecessor Trent Lott (Miss.), Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) seems to have found his niche as the Republicans’ top vote-counter by cajoling with substance rather than style.

And while that approach may make it difficult for outsiders to measure the Arizona Republican’s success as a Whip, colleagues and observers credit him with helping keep a badly battered and deeply fractured minority together as much as possible.

“I would say that Sen. Kyl’s job is a heck of a lot harder than when we were in the majority or had larger numbers,— National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said Monday, adding that while Kyl’s work may not be as obvious as some of the party’s more colorful Whips, he is nevertheless working constantly to keep the GOP’s 41 Members together.

“There’s an awful lot of one-on-one communicating. … he’s literally working it all the time,— Cornyn said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — who sometimes finds herself at odds with her leadership on major policy matters — agreed, saying that unlike Lott, who was a very public, vocal leader, Kyl prefers to keep a lower profile.

“He’s got a way about him, a mannerism, I think that’s not aggressive, it’s not pushy. It’s, come on, lets get this done,’— explained Murkowski, who serves as a counselor to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

Cornyn said Kyl’s focus on getting results works and helps a diminished minority stay close when it really matters. He said Kyl needs to hold to that strategy “if he’s going to keep us together.—

Kyl easily won the job as Whip, the No. 2 in the GOP lineup, when Lott suddenly resigned his Senate seat in late 2007 to head to the private sector. Kyl had previously served as the Senate Republican Conference chairman, a job that forced him to embrace the cameras as one of the party’s top messengers.

But Kyl, who declined to comment for this article, has always been more interested in policy than politics. Unlike Lott, Kyl never relied on longstanding relationships and his personality to sell Members on an issue. Rather, Kyl has relied on the substance behind the issue to make the case for a vote.

Republicans have been fairly successful so far in the 111th unifying against the Democratic majority, but they have lacked unanimity at times. For instance, during the Senate debate on the $787 billion stimulus measure, three moderate Republicans broke ranks to help carry the bill forward.

One GOP leadership source pointed out that McConnell — who served as the GOP Whip in the majority and preceded Lott — has continued to operate his own unofficial Whip team on particularly tough votes.

McConnell often calls on his longtime confidant Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and go-to man Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) to help cajole wayward Members. McConnell also uses a small cadre of rotating Republicans — who either have the policy expertise or personal relationships needed — to bring Members into line.

Having McConnell assist in the whipping process gives Kyl room to work Senators behind the scenes and try to quietly forge deals to keep the Conference together.

While Kyl, like McConnell, has long been more comfortable operating “in the weeds— of the Senate, he has been thrust into the national spotlight as the No. 2 Senate Republican. He has reluctantly started to embrace that role, regularly appearing on Sunday talk shows and helping craft the Republican response to Obama administration proposals. But even then, his appearances involve less partisan rhetoric and more of a sober discussion of policy alternatives.

Not having to focus on the overtly partisan aspects of the Whip job, and having a Minority Leader who is comfortable with counting votes, has allowed Kyl to remain deeply rooted in the policy world. For instance, Kyl has been working with McConnell and Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) to come up with new conservative-based policy proposals and he has remained actively engaged in committee work and legislative development.

Former Kyl aides argued that this comfort with the details of policy and penchant for cutting deals are serving Kyl well. While Lott — a former House Member who put a premium on relationships both old and new — used strong personal skills to gain leverage with his colleagues, Kyl has taken a much more policy-oriented bent. One source pointed to his work during the immigration debate in the 110th Congress as an example of how Kyl translated his depth of knowledge on a complex issue to try to sell his Conference on a reform package.

Although Kyl and Lott were ultimately unable to bring along enough lawmakers to back a comprehensive package at the time, Republicans applauded their work on a compromise that adhered to many of the party’s core conservative principles, while still appealing to moderate Republicans. Kyl was widely considered one of the key forces behind the deal.

“He’s like a good legal negotiator. … Everyone leaves the room thinking, Yeah we can make this work,’— Murkowski said, adding that with Kyl “there’s no ego, there’s no flash.—