Senate GOP focusing more on big picture than lame duck

Newly elected Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) convened his new leadership team for the first time late yesterday afternoon to take stock of its party’s recent setback at the polls and to plot the future.

The leaders discussed next month’s leadership retreat and the importance of keeping open the channels of communication among themselves, but they did not discuss in depth how to handle the few remaining weeks of the Republican majority. Leaving Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in charge of next month’s agenda has created somewhat of a leadership vacuum in a growing split within the Senate GOP conference over spending priorities.

“We might have an opinion, but others are in charge right now,” Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the newly elected Republican whip, said after the meeting when asked about the chamber’s immediate agenda. Democrats take control of the Senate in January, but the remaining Republicans’ legislative agenda in this Congress is significantly hampered by their poor showing at the polls.

Earlier in the afternoon, the entire Republican conference met to assess last week’s election and discuss what they hoped to accomplish before turning power over to the Democrats.

Behind closed doors, frustrated Republicans voiced concern that they lost six seats because they have drifted away from their core principles, said participants.

First and foremost, Republican senators are distressed that the GOP is no longer regarded as the party of fiscal discipline, an anxiety that is fueling a debate over how to handle the pending appropriations bills. The unfinished spending bills make up a significant portion of the work leaders hope to complete during the lame-duck session in December. 

While Frist, who will retire from the upper chamber at the end of the year, is still technically the majority leader, and outgoing Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) is still the GOP conference chairman, the real power in the Republican leadership has passed onto the new leadership team: McConnell, the Republican leader-elect; Lott, the Republican whip-elect; and Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the elected Republican conference chairman. 

One of the new leadership’s first challenges is to bridge schisms that have emerged within the Republican conference over how to handle the remaining spending bills.

But members confined their first meeting to other topics, according to participants.

At a closed-door meeting of the Senate Republican conference yesterday, lawmakers argued back and forth over whether to attempt to complete the nine outstanding appropriations bills.

A group of Republicans led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) argued that to cut costs, the spending bills should be left unfinished, said colleagues. DeMint believes that Congress should freeze spending at current levels by passing a stopgap measure funding government into next year.

“There are some people who want to do that and I think that’s a very bad move,” said Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “The Democrats have indicated that they want to cooperate, so I think we need to get everyone on the buggy and do the job we were elected to do.”

Some Republican strategists believe that pushing the spending bills into next year would tie up the Democrats and make it more difficult for them to aggressively pursue their agenda on other issues such as Iraq, Medicare, and middle-class tax cuts.

A White House official said that is a major reason for why Democratic leaders are eager to cooperate on finishing the spending bills this year.

Meanwhile, another conservative Republican freshman, Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), has prepared nearly 40 amendments to strike earmarks in the pending agriculture appropriations bills. And he has made it known that he plans to attack other project-laden spending bills in the same way, setting his colleagues up for a slow legislative grind if they decide to pass appropriations bills individually in December, as some lawmakers have urged. 

“His concern is that voters want to see the favor factory shut down, not turned over to new management,” said John Hart, Coburn’s spokesman. “The worst response Congress can have to the elections is to go on an earmark spending binge with one of the first appropriations bills.”

“I think there are a number of different fractures within the conference on the bills,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. “There are people like myself who don’t like to see the emergency spending being thrown in there, there are people like Coburn who don’t like the earmarks, there are people like DeMint who think they should be kicked over to the next Congress like [former Sen. Tom] Daschle [D-S.D.] kicked it over to us, and there are people like [Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman] Thad Cochran [R-Miss.] who want to get it done because they think it’s their job.”

While some lawmakers are pushing for the stopgap spending measure, and others want to pass as many individual bills as possible, a third option would be to combine the bills into a massive omnibus spending package, or several smaller “minibus” packages.

GOP leaders had hoped to pass the agriculture bill before recessing for Thanksgiving, but that may not be possible because of nearly $9 billion in emergency spending that may accompany the legislation, drawing protests from conservative Republicans.

Leaders also hope to ratify a nuclear non-proliferation treaty with India. White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, who sat in on yesterday’s Senate Republican conference meeting, exhorted the assembled lawmakers to pass the bill. Lawmakers said there was a chance of doing that last night.

A Senate GOP leadership aide said that in addition to the spending bills, other items on the December agenda include legislation giving Vietnam permanent normal trade status, a package of tax-cut extensions, and legislation addressing the threat of bioterrorism.

Senate Republicans have not yet placed offshore drilling legislation on their December agenda because it’s not clear whether a similar bill could be passed in the House.

A House GOP leadership aide said that House Republican leaders would put the Vietnam trade bill back on the floor next month, as well as a package of tax-cut extensions. In a surprise vote, the House rejected the Vietnam trade measure earlier this week.

What tax cuts will be in the package is still the subject of bicameral negotiations.

The House aide said that Republican leaders, chairmen and rank-and-file members are also debating whether to finish the appropriations bills or postpone their completion until the next Congress.