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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 McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDems confront Kelly after he calls some immigrants 'lazy' McConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Overnight Defense: Latest on spending fight - House passes stopgap with defense money while Senate nears two-year budget deal | Pentagon planning military parade for Trump | Afghan war will cost B in 2018 MORE (Ky.) used a weekend trip to woo star GOP freshmen away from the Tea Party.

McConnell took Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTrump must send Russia powerful message through tougher actions McCain, Coons immigration bill sparks Trump backlash Taking a strong stance to protect election integrity MORE (R-Fla.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold Johnson40 patient advocacy groups oppose 'right to try' drug bill GOP eyes changes to 'right to try' bill Hundreds sign on to letter opposing 'right to try' drug bill MORE (R-Wis.) and Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteAudit finds US Defense Department wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars US sends A-10 squadron to Afghanistan for first time in three years No, the US did not spend million on a gas station in Afghanistan 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 Olin GrahamMcConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Overnight Tech: Uber exec says 'no justification' for covering up hack | Apple considers battery rebates | Regulators talk bitcoin | SpaceX launches world's most powerful rocket Overnight Cybersecurity: Tillerson proposes new cyber bureau at State | Senate bill would clarify cross-border data rules | Uber exec says 'no justification' for covering up breach MORE (R-S.C.) and Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrOvernight Cybersecurity: Trump poised to allow release of intel memo | GOP chair threatens to subpoena DHS over Kaspersky docs | Pompeo defends meeting Russian spy chief Furor grows over Nunes intel memo Pelosi calls on Ryan to oust Nunes over ‘bogus’ memo 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 PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulPentagon: War in Afghanistan will cost billion in 2018 Overnight Finance: Senators near two-year budget deal | Trump would 'love to see a shutdown' over immigration | Dow closes nearly 600 points higher after volatile day | Trade deficit at highest level since 2008 | Pawlenty leaving Wall Street group Rand Paul calls for punishment if Congress can't reach a long-term budget deal MORE of Kentucky and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeRubio on push for paid family leave: ‘We still have to work on members of my own party’ National ad campaign pushes Congress to pass legislation lowering drug prices Senate Republicans call on Trump to preserve NAFTA 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 Steven KirkHigh stakes as Trump heads to Hill Five things to watch for at Trump-Senate GOP meeting Giffords, Scalise highlight party differences on guns MORE (R-Ill.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP leader: Congress may settle for pared-down immigration deal Senate Republicans call on Trump to preserve NAFTA Key senator floats new compromise for immigration talks MORE (R-Ohio) and John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanSenate Republicans call on Trump to preserve NAFTA Dems go on the attack during EPA chief's hearing Bipartisan group of senators ask Trump to fund broadband in infrastructure plan 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 CornynDems confront Kelly after he calls some immigrants 'lazy' McConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration GOP senators turning Trump immigration framework into legislation 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 Ann MurkowskiLawmakers scold Trump official over Pacific island trust fund Republican agenda clouded by division Greens sue over Interior plans to build road through Alaska refuge MORE (R-Alaska), Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoSenate Republicans call on Trump to preserve NAFTA Dems rip Trump's Fed pick as Senate panel mulls three key nominees Trump calls for looser rules for bank loans in Dodd-Frank overhaul MORE (R-Idaho) and Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerMcConnell urging Mississippi gov to appoint himself if Cochran resigns: report Senate Republicans call on Trump to preserve NAFTA Trump, GOP make peace after tax win — but will it last? 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.”