Monday’s surprise resignation of Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R., Miss.) has initiated an intra-party fight over soon-to-be vacant leadership positions within the Republican caucus. Conservatives will have a dog in this fight as they seek to fill the party leadership with Republicans who embrace both social and fiscal conservatism, and who will promote the message of earmark reform that could save a caucus apparently doomed to lose seats in 2008.
Shortly after Lott’s resignation, it seemed settled that conservative Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.) would take Lott’s place as whip, the number-two leadership spot for the Senate GOP below Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.). Kyl, in turn, would be vacating the number-three leadership spot, the chair of the Senate Republican Conference (SRC).
Therefore the SRC, responsible for promoting Senate Republicans’ media message, has become the office everyone has their eye on. The SRC chairman’s importance goes beyond his function — the position is a platform for the ambitious. It carries with it a $1.55 million annual budget for staff and expenses. It is, in short, a big deal.
Conservatives would love to see Kyl as whip, one of their own controlling the SRC, and perhaps two others in the fourth and fifth top leadership offices as well. They are not expected to attain this now, but they can still win slowly if an unexpected ally runs for the position.
No sooner had Lott resigned and Kyl become his heir apparent than Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R., Tex.) was telephoning colleagues to solicit support for a run at the SRC chairmanship. She is considered the favorite, which is slightly baffling. Hutchison said in an interview last month that she is in her last term (ending in 2012) and may leave the Senate as soon as 2009 to run for governor. So why is she seeking this position now? Other Republicans may hesitate to support a lame-duck senator to run their media operation for such a brief period. For her own part, Hutchison is certainly in no need of a Senate résumé-builder — she already holds the number-four GOP leadership position as chairwoman of the Republican Policy Committee (RPC).
One Senate aide made the case for Hutchison based on the current leadership’s successes in thwarting Democrats’ agenda. “Why risk that and change things by bringing in someone who hasn’t been in leadership?” he asked. He dismissed concerns over Hutchison’s talk of leaving the Senate, noting that such positions change hands frequently anyway.
At any rate, Hutchison is not quite what conservatives have in mind for the SRC post. Her voting record (American Conservative Union Lifetime Rating: 90) lines up on the right, but she is a pro-choice politician on abortion (who nonetheless supports most abortion restrictions) and an appropriator whose votes on wasteful earmarks won her an unimpressive 53 percent on the Club for Growth’s “Repork Card.” As others in the current leadership team were resisting, Hutchison voted, along with Democrats, to turn a health insurance program for poor children (known as S-CHIP) into a free ride for middle-class parents.
When recently asked by late-night host Bill Maher who was the better president — George W. Bush or Bill Clinton — Hutchison, who represents Bush in the Senate, said: “Well that’s not a fair question.” She was unable even to give a nuanced answer to assuage Republican shame over Bush’s tenure — perhaps something about history’s ultimate judgment coming later.
Despite all of this, conservatives believe that Hutchison may prove to be their salvation — in fact, they expressed alarm yesterday at vague rumors that she might back out of the race.
This is because another contender for the SRC position is Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), who came within one vote of defeating Lott for the whip position after the 2006 election. He ran for office as a more conservative Republican than Hutchison, but his voting record makes him more liberal (ACU Lifetime Rating: 84). He scored only 33 percent on his “repork card.” He, too, apostatized on the SCHIP vote. He helped lead the unsuccessful movement to let states tax Internet access. My conversations with senior aides indicated that Senate conservatives do not trust Alexander. “Lamar would not be more conservative than Hutchison,” one of them insisted to me yesterday, after I had asserted the contrary.
Alexander’s most recent bid to win conservative approval was his widely misreported amendment removing federal workplace protections from employees who utter words at work in a foreign language. Alexander framed it as if it would merely let employers require English on the job, when in fact it let them ban all other languages as well — even for speaking among themselves or to friends on the telephone. It was more “Franco” than “Franklin.”
For the SRC position, conservatives would prefer one of their own — namely, Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.), who is seeking the post, as National Review Online’s “The Corner” reported first on Monday. Burr, who scored 100 percent on his “Repork Card,” would have full support on the Right and also from some of Lott’s allies, but he is a low-profile freshman senator whose skill at Senate maneuvering is wholly untested. He would probably make the second ballot in a three-way race, but victory would be less likely.
But if they cannot get Burr, conservatives would prefer Hutchison in the SRC position over Alexander, even if she is worse on some key issues. Why? Because she is a lame duck, and by becoming SRC chairman she would vacate her current post, creating an opening for conservative Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.). From there, Cornyn could succeed Hutchison in 2009 if she resigns — and for now, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) could succeed Cornyn in the number-five spot. This would lead to a much more conservative leadership team within two years.
By contrast, Alexander would “burrow in” as SRC chairman, as another Senate aide put it. He would become a moderate fixture in the leadership over the long haul. Alexander, popular in his home state, will have his Senate seat as long as he wants to keep it.
That is the short story for conservatives in the Senate Republicans’ game of musical chairs. If it confuses you, then consider yourself among the very fortunate 99.9 percent of Americans in your position. Intra-party politics makes for strange bedfellows, and often it isn’t pretty.
— David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.