Senate Republicans Stay Above Tea Party Fray

Posted November 6, 2009 at 6:28pm

While other GOP leaders may be eagerly courting conservatives and distancing themselves from moderates, one group of Republicans has kept its distance: the Senate’s 40-Member-strong Republican Conference.

Beginning with the anti-tax tea parties last spring and later with the town hall protests over health care in August, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other House leaders have increasingly tacked right. Some have participated in the events, and still others have cheered the organizers along.

Rather than condemn Members who make inflammatory remarks like calling the president a liar or likening the health care overhaul to a terrorist attack, House leaders have embraced them. And instead of rallying behind the moderate GOP candidate in New York’s 23rd district in the off-year election, some GOP leaders seemingly turned a blind eye as conservatives one after the other endorsed Conservative Party hopeful Doug Hoffman.

But, with rare exceptions, Senate Republicans have been careful to avoid those sorts of internecine rifts and to not drift too far to the right.

Instead, Senate Republicans, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), have tried to keep the Conference above the fray and focused on policy differences with Democrats.

According to one GOP leadership aide, McConnell’s philosophy is that Senators “can be inspired by the movement, but not become the movement [and] not to get swept up by the movement … our job is to stop irreversible legislation that could have a lasting negative impact as far as we’re concerned.—

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) noted that, unlike Senators, House Members are up for re-election every two years and in a constant state of campaigning. Plus, Senators represent an entire state and must appeal to a larger, often more moderate, constituency.

“It’s the difference between representing a state and district … a Senator has a broader constituency, which does matter. You’re not [always] up for election, which does matter,— Graham said.

But beyond the institutional differences between the chambers, Senate Republicans also said they have consciously made a decision to not court the conservative activists.

Conference Vice Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) argues that while House Republicans and other national leaders have decided to align themselves with tea bag protesters and other disenchanted conservatives, Senate Republicans have stayed on the issues.

“We recognize we have to stay focused on the big picture,— Murkowski said.

GOP aides said that with a diverse Conference that includes moderates and conservatives, leaders in the Senate have made a concerted effort not to be drawn into the fight over the party. McConnell, Alexander and others have instead sought to focus their energies on policy and political positions that as broad a swath of their Conference as possible can agree on.

“Our leadership picked a handful of key issues that every Republican Senator was for and singled out the worst provisions in the Democrats’ bill. By not muddying the waters, Republicans have been able to do what Democrats are now having trouble with — staying united,— a GOP leadership aide said.

Alexander said Friday that GOP leaders have charted a course to avoid what he termed the “ferment within our party.—

“That’s exactly what we’re trying to do … we’ve worked very hard on what unites us, not what divides us,— Alexander said. For instance, Alexander pointed to climate change and energy legislation, an area where his party is deeply divided on many issues. “We’re all over the lot on climate change, from ‘it’s a hoax’ to ‘it’s an urgent problem.’—

As a result, Senate leaders have focused on a four-point energy plan “that we’re all comfortable with— rather than looking to enforce a policy that may not be embraced by all members, Alexander explained.

Alexander, whose job it is to cultivate the Senate GOP message, credited McConnell in particular for setting a tone of cooperation in the Conference. “I’ll give Mitch McConnell a lot of credit for that,— Alexander said.

Senate Republicans are also far less comfortable with ideological purity tests that many national GOP figures embrace.

For instance, Graham is one of the leaders of a bipartisan effort to draft climate change legislation, along with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.).

While conservatives like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) have vigorously opposed any sort of climate change legislation, he and other opponents have not waged the types of attacks that moderates in the House faced this summer when they backed a Democratic climate change bill.

When asked about Graham’s efforts, the usually blunt DeMint said that while he does not agree with the need for legislation at this point, he respects what his colleague is trying to do.

“Lindsey is trying to get some Republican ideas— into the climate change bill, DeMint noted.

McConnell, Alexander and other leaders have thus far walked a fine line, calling for a “big tent— approach to party politics while also stopping short of criticizing divisive party figures like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and others who attack moderates.

But with activists pushing for conservative primary challengers in the Florida, Illinois and California Senate races next year, Republicans acknowledge the balancing act may prove more difficult.

Graham said that while “conservatism is an asset, not a problem … some people are being pushed [by activists] who have an ideological view that is rigid.—

But Alexander downplayed the likelihood that the divisive fights and rush to the right that has marked the House this year will play out in the Senate, arguing the 2010 primary process will likely produce candidates that both are viable statewide and can appeal to conservatives.

“As long as we have primaries, we’ll be able to accommodate the ferment within our party,— Alexander said.