Sen. McConnell lures stars from Tea Party during Afghanistan trip

Conservatives believe Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) used a weekend trip to woo star GOP freshmen away from the Tea Party.

McConnell took Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) on a high-powered weekend trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan that is being seen as a ploy by the leader to secure allies for forthcoming legislative battles.

The visit gave the freshmen firsthand access to world leaders and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as well as plenty of quality time with their party leader in the Senate.

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The list of invitees immediately raised eyebrows because Rubio, Toomey, Johnson and Ayotte are seen as occupying the middle ground between the leadership and the Tea Party caucus, who are expected to battle over the direction of the Republican Conference in the 112th Congress.

“It's no secret he uses these trips to co-opt new senators,” said a Senate Republican aide. “I'm sure the new senators know what he's up to, but it’s not exactly an invitation you can turn down.”

A spokesman for McConnell declined to comment in response to the anonymous charge.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) also joined the codel, the jargon used to describe official congressional travel.

Two other conservative freshman senators with close ties to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) — Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah — were not on the trip, some conservatives noted.

DeMint, Paul and Lee, who defeated McConnell’s close friend, former Sen. Bob Bennett, in Utah’s Republican primary last year, recently announced they would form the Senate’s Tea Party caucus.

DeMint, the conservative leader of the Senate Republican Steering Committee, has battled with McConnell over the ideological direction of the conference, most famously on earmarks. McConnell and DeMint also took different sides in several Republican primaries last year.

Some Republican aides think McConnell is trying to bring Rubio, Toomey, Johnson and Ayotte into his sphere of influence.

All four are potential recruits to the Tea Party caucus. Other freshmen, such as Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and John Boozman (R-Ark.), are considered less likely to side with DeMint, Paul and Lee in battles with the GOP leadership over spending, earmarks and other issues.

“The first thing that comes to mind is the Trent Lott quote about the leadership having to ingratiate itself as quickly as possible so the new senators can be co-opted,” said a second Republican aide. “It’s interesting who’s on the list and who’s not on the list. These trips are obviously used for that.”

Former Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) predicted last year that McConnell would have to move quickly to build ties with conservative freshman senators.

“We don't need a lot of Jim DeMint disciples,” Lott told The Washington Post in an interview. “As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them.”

DeMint endorsed Paul in Kentucky’s primary, while McConnell first endorsed Paul’s opponent, Trey Grayson.

DeMint also endorsed Rubio early in Florida’s Senate Republican primary, while McConnell and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) initially backed former Gov. Charlie Christ, who later dropped his Republican affiliation to run as an Independent.

Erick Erickson, a conservative political analyst and editor in chief of RedState.com, said Senate aides predicted before the election that McConnell would try to win over the conservative freshmen.

“I was hearing about this from Senate Republican leadership aides before the election, that once Mitch McConnell had taken them on trips, he was sure to get their votes on this and that,” Erickson said.

“I think that’s what’s going on — they’re attempting to shut down this potential Tea Party caucus,” he said.

“The question is whether these guys are going to be different than in the past,” Erickson added, in reference to the freshmen.

The freshman lawmakers flew on military transport to meet with Petraeus, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Pakistani foreign secretary Salman Bashir and Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s chief of army staff, who is regarded as the nation’s most powerful leader.

“The purpose of this trip was to become familiar with our efforts in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and to learn from our commanders on the field, our embassy officials and some of the people we are working with in these countries,” Toomey said in a statement.

McConnell will also build ties by doling out committee assignments to the freshmen.

McConnell organized a similar trip last January. He traveled with Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) to Afghanistan and Pakistan to meet with senior officials.

Castle, a liberal Republican, was expected at the time to be a strong favorite to win Delaware’s Senate seat. Because of his centrist ideology, he was also viewed as a potentially inconsistent supporter of the leadership’s agenda.

Castle’s quest for the Senate derailed in September when he lost the Republican primary to Christine O’Donnell, whom DeMint endorsed.

Some conservatives say McConnell is simply doing his job as leader

“His job is to have as united a caucus as possible,” said Larry Hart, director of government relations at the American Conservative Union.

Brian Darling, director of government relations at the Heritage Foundation, said: “I think it’s clearly an opportunity for McConnell to build relationships with newer members. Bringing members on codels is one way to build relationships and develop relationships on a one-on-one basis so he can maybe ask for things in the future.”

“There’s an ideological tug-of-war,” said Andy Roth, vice president of government affairs at the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group. “The conservative end of the rope is going to win.”