The Senate’s Republican majority has a new occupant of the whip’s office, and with it come some new people for senators and their staffs to interact with when trying to get legislation to the floor.
The leader of the operation for Majority Whip John Thune will be a familiar face from the South Dakota’s previous role as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.
Brendon Plack, a native South Dakotan who has worked for Thune for 14 years — including as the senator’s driver and a legislative correspondent early in his tenure before rising to staff director of the Conference — is now the whip’s office chief of staff.
In an interview last week, Plack said he had learned a lot from the the staff of Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who served as GOP whip in the three previous Congresses and was term-limited out of the role.
“We have consulted a lot with Sen. Cornyn’s staff, their outgoing whip staff,” Plack said. “Certainly, it’s a bigger responsibility within the conference. Sen. Thune understands that. His staff understands that, and we’re hopeful to be as successful as possible helping the leader and helping the rest of the conference deliver on the agenda.”
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Thune’s new role doesn’t come with that much of a cracking whip, so to speak, to get party members to fall in line on key votes. Rather, the position as Plack describes it is to have an office that can serve as a sounding board to try to resolve concerns raised by individual senators.
“When there are differing opinions, our role is going to be to listen and to make sure those opinions are heard, and to make sure that we can address as many of those concerns as possible with whatever measure’s on the floor,” Plack said. “I think that’s the power of the office, right? It’s to provide a platform for members to come in and make sure their concerns are heard and addressed as legislation moves.”
Plack spoke to Roll Call alongside Nick Rossi, the incoming deputy chief of staff and chief counsel in the whip office. Rossi will be familiar to Thune followers as well; he most recently was the majority staff director of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which Thune chaired until his move up the leadership ladder this year.
Rossi said there would be a need to adjust to the new role and its responsibilities, which is even more closely coordinated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his operation.
“When you’re at a committee and you’re [moving] a committee bill to the floor or a committee nominee to the floor, you think a lot about whether or not you have the votes to get the bill or the nominee through, and some of those aspects will be very similar,” Rossi said, adding it will be “different in the sense that a lot of the time at the committee is spent courting the other members of the committee — on both sides of the aisle.”
The job in the whip’s office involves more of taking the temperature of Republican members who do not serve on the committee of jurisdiction but may still have a lot to say.
“In the whip’s office, our primary goal is still to assist the majority leader in deciding what should get floor time and what nominees merit floor time, and so we’ll be acting in a way that backs [McConnell] up and prioritizes his vision for what the floor should be doing,” Rossi said. “I do think it will be somewhat interesting to have the shoe on the other foot in terms of dealing with the committees, but I think the difference will be that we’ll be listening not just to one committee, but to all of them.”
While Plack and Rossi are both familiar faces, and there will be others coming over from the Senate Republican Conference staff as well, the whip’s office is not without some new additions.
Thune has hired Geoffrey Antell and Cindy Herrle, who both have key House leadership experience under former Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin.
Antell is the new policy director and counsel. He served in a variety of similar roles including assistant to the speaker for policy and trade counsel at the Ways and Means Committee under both Ryan when he chaired the panel and former Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan.
“We’re really excited about the team we have assembled. We have a lot of long-term loyal staff in the personal office, and the team we’ve brought in to the leadership office is a great mix of House and Senate talent that we think are going to really add a lot to the Senate leadership team as a whole,” Plack said. “Geoff Antell and Cindy Herrle, formerly with Speaker Ryan’s office, are great additions to Sen. Thune’s team and the Senate leadership team.”
Plack said Antell and Herrle as well as other newcomers with significant Senate experience would be working with all GOP member offices, especially as new senators get settled and up to speed.
Those other hires include David Cole, who joins as a liaison to legislative directors after serving as legislative director for the recently resigned Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, and as a senior aide to the late Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn. The whip’s office said Cole’s duties will include outreach to conservative groups. That will be a natural fit: He previously worked at the Heritage Foundation.
Scarlet Doyle Samp is also coming aboard as a liaison to legislative directors. She was senior legislative assistant to former Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, and her portfolio included telecommunications issues (a key piece of Thune’s Commerce Committee work).
“They’re going to be involved not only with the policy agenda that Republicans pursue in the Senate, but also making sure that the whip office in particular is reaching out to all members of the conference to make sure that we are addressing any concerns,” Plack said.
The policy staff also includes Jason Van Beek, who splits time between the personal office and the leadership office. In the whip’s office, he will be the oversight counsel, a role that Plack and Rossi described as being a point person for tracking the oversight agenda of Senate Republicans.
Thune will also maintain an active role on his longtime committee assignments: Agriculture, Commerce and Finance. And one key Thune aide has actually left the employ of the South Dakota Republican to go to work for the Finance panel under its new chairman, Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley.
“Mark Warren moving over to the Finance Committee as chief counsel is a phenomenal opportunity for him. He was a key member of Sen. Thune’s team last Congress,” Plack said. “He’ll be missed, but he’s not far away.”