Politics & Policy

Will the Senate Lead?

Hoping for a conservative rebirth.

Polls, it is said, are nothing more than a snapshot of a particular moment. The political landscape can and may change between the time the last poll is published and the first vote is cast. However, if most polls are to be believed, Republicans are about to lose control of the House of Representatives.

#ad#That’s critical for conservatives, because, for us, the House has served as a backstop of sorts against the enactment of liberal legislation. Whether it be tax policy, minor reductions in government spending, or immigration reform, the House has largely been able to get the job done where the Senate has not.

If, however, the “people’s house” comes under new political management, the conservative minority will be forced into the opposition role — a role with very limited power to manipulate legislative machinery.

Yet the same polls suggest the GOP may maintain control of the Senate. Barely.

If Republicans do indeed experience losses in the midterms many will point to an unmotivated GOP conservative base — a base that sent Republicans to Congress to fix the problem of big government, not become part of it. That’s why it’s time for Republicans in both houses of Congress to take a hard look in the mirror. Any repudiation at the polls should be read as an exhortation from the electorate to the GOP to regain its traditional role as the “Party of Limited Government.” And that conservative rebirth will need to begin in the United States Senate.

This, of course, will be no easy task for the Senate.

After all, this will be roughly the same group of Republican senators — most elected by conservative-base voters — that has ceded a great deal of senatorial power to a small group of moderates. Indeed, nearly half of the 16 Senate standing committees are controlled by senators who will never be mistaken for true-blue (or is that red-?) conservatives. Powerful committee chairmen like Ted Stevens (Commerce), Susan Collins (Government Affairs), Arlen Specter (Judiciary), Olympia Snowe (Small Business), John Warner (Armed Services), Richard Lugar (Foreign Relations), and Thad Cochran (Appropriations) hold disproportionate sway over their conservative colleagues.

It is also the same Senate that spent 17 legislative days — an unusually large amount of time — crafting what can only be described as an amnesty immigration-reform bill. Moderate- to liberal-Republican senators also worked to thwart progress on key conservative issues including Social Security reform, death-tax repeal, and meaningful earmark reform.

But there is reason to hope that a narrower GOP Senate majority will take to heart the lesson given by the American voter. Key to this change will be the leaders of the new Senate.

Current Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is retiring, presumably to focus full-time on his presidential aspirations. Too often this term, conservative insiders say, Frist had his eyes on 2008 and not on the immediate conservative legislative agenda. The in-coming new leadership should be able to focus on that agenda. And, unlike Frist, the next Majority Leader will not owe his job to the administration and, therefore, should feel no more than the customary considerations of loyalty to the president.

Succeeding Frist will be current Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell. Aside from his status as an appropriator, McConnell has been reliably conservative throughout his career. He achieved near rock-star status by being the Senate’s principle opponent of the anti-free-speech McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law. The Kentuckian will oversee a Senate leadership team that will look much different than the one currently in place.

If Senator Rick Santorum comes from behind to beat Bob Casey Jr., in the race for Pennsylvania Senate, he will be a hero in the Republican party, and his bid for Senate majority whip will have no serious opposition. Should Santorum lose his race, Senators Trent Lott, Bob Bennett and Lamar Alexander will all vie for the whip position.

In this scenario, Senate insiders expect Lott to come out on top. Should Lott succeed, McConnell will be aided by a top lieutenant who in the past has shown that he knows how to make the Senate trains run on time (let us hope he leaves Amtrak and Mississippi trains out of the equation, and employs his skills to further McConnell’s conservative agenda).

Assuming he wins reelection, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, one of the Senate’s staunchest conservatives, will move up in Senate leadership to handle the messaging duties at the Senate Republican Conference. Another conservative, John Cornyn, who has worked well with Kyl on a range of conservative initiatives in the past, will join Kyl at the SRC.

Rounding out the Senate leadership team will be Kay Bailey Hutchison, who will lead the Senate Republican Policy Committee and the up-and-coming conservative John Ensign, who will helm the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Under McConnell’s leadership and with the addition of Cornyn and Ensign, next year’s team shapes up to be significantly more conservative than this year’s. Now the task for that team is twofold: reining in Senate moderates (who are almost certain to draw the wrong conclusions if and when the GOP loses seats), and expanding the number of reliably conservative votes in the Senate.

Currently, the Senate has around 30 reliably conservative Republican voters. Four recent Senate votes provide a composite that illustrates the challenge ahead for McConnell and his new team.

On March 7, Senator Snowe employed a budget gimmick to shift funds dedicated to her state for the next fiscal year into this fiscal year with the intention of again retrieving the funds in 2007. Twenty-nine conservatives opposed her attempt to double her state’s appropriation.

On March 16 the Senate voted on what Senator Specter admitted was a $14 billion budgetary appropriations gimmick. After Specter won the vote, he boasted that the “Republican Party [was] principally moderate, if not liberal.” Twenty-seven conservatives opposed Specter.

On April 26, Senator Ensign attempted to strip down a porked-up emergency supplemental bill by trimming the final price tag bag to the president’s original request. Twenty-seven conservatives voted with Ensign.

On May 25, 33 conservatives opposed the Senate’s amnesty immigration bill.        

These votes just scratch the surface, but they paint a picture of where the Senate is as far as conservative members go.

If the Senate is called upon to be the bastion of conservative common sense in the next Congress, it will be up to this new team of leaders to ensure that the majority of the majority party heeds the call of the American people. The snapshot provided by the Republican-base voter is clear: It’s time for the Republican Senate to govern from the right.

— Tim Chapman is the director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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