Sen. McConnell lures stars from Tea Party during Afghanistan trip

Sen. McConnell lures stars from Tea Party during Afghanistan trip

Conservatives believe Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellGOP senator: Don't expect Trump to 'have your back' on healthcare vote Senate Dems step up protests ahead of ObamaCare repeal vote Johnson becomes fourth GOP senator unwilling to proceed on healthcare bill MORE (Ky.) used a weekend trip to woo star GOP freshmen away from the Tea Party.

McConnell took Sens. Marco RubioMarco RubioRubio: 'I hope' Mexican elections won't end partnership against cartels Election hacking fears turn heat on Homeland Security Will Republicans stand up to the NRA's insurrection rhetoric? MORE (R-Fla.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonJohnson becomes fourth GOP senator unwilling to proceed on healthcare bill Overnight Healthcare: CBO score imperils ObamaCare repeal | Breaking down the numbers | WH hits back over score | Trump phones holdouts | Dems plan floor protest New CBO analysis imperils GOP ObamaCare repeal MORE (R-Wis.) and Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteOPINION: Democracy will send ISIS to the same grave as communism Kelly Ayotte joins defense contractor's board of directors Week ahead: Comey firing dominates Washington MORE (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 GrahamLindsey GrahamGOP senator: Don't expect Trump to 'have your back' on healthcare vote Five takeaways from the CBO score on Senate ObamaCare bill New CBO analysis imperils GOP ObamaCare repeal MORE (R-S.C.) and Richard BurrRichard BurrSenate intel panel to hold hearing on Russian meddling in Europe The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Tech: Uber CEO resigns | Trump's Iowa tech trip | Dems push Sessions to block AT&T-Time Warner deal | Lawmakers warned on threat to election systems | MORE (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 PaulRand PaulJohnson becomes fourth GOP senator unwilling to proceed on healthcare bill Five takeaways from the CBO score on Senate ObamaCare bill Overnight Healthcare: CBO score imperils ObamaCare repeal | Breaking down the numbers | WH hits back over score | Trump phones holdouts | Dems plan floor protest MORE of Kentucky and Mike LeeMike LeeFive takeaways from the CBO score on Senate ObamaCare bill Overnight Healthcare: CBO score imperils ObamaCare repeal | Breaking down the numbers | WH hits back over score | Trump phones holdouts | Dems plan floor protest New CBO analysis imperils GOP ObamaCare repeal MORE 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 KirkMark KirkGOP senator defends funding Planned Parenthood Why Qatar Is a problem for Washington Taking the easy layup: Why brain cancer patients depend on it MORE (R-Ill.), Rob PortmanRob PortmanFive takeaways from the CBO score on Senate ObamaCare bill McConnell allies confident in healthcare win GOP’s message on ObamaCare is us versus them MORE (R-Ohio) and John BoozmanJohn BoozmanLobbying World The Hill's 12:30 Report GOP leader tempers ObamaCare expectations MORE (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 CornynJohn CornynSenate adds penalty for going uninsured to healthcare bill The Hill's 12:30 Report Cornyn: GOP won't delay ObamaCare repeal vote MORE (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 MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiMurkowski: I don't have enough information to vote in favor of healthcare bill Four GOP senators will vote against taking up healthcare bill without changes This week: Senate races toward ObamaCare repeal vote MORE (R-Alaska), Mike CrapoMike CrapoOvernight Regulation: Senate Banking panel huddles with regulators on bank relief | FCC proposes 2M fine on robocaller | Yellowstone grizzly loses endangered protection Overnight Finance: Big US banks pass Fed stress tests | Senate bill repeals most ObamaCare taxes | Senate expected to pass Russian sanctions bill for second time All big US banks pass Dodd-Frank stress tests MORE (R-Idaho) and Roger WickerRoger WickerOvernight Defense: GOP chairman moves ahead with 0B defense bill | Lawmakers eye 355 ship navy | Senate panel seeks answers on shoot down of Syrian jet The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill Lawmakers unveil bill to set 355-ship Navy MORE (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.”