The deadlock in negotiations to raise the debt limit has set off delicate maneuvering among Senate Republican leaders who hope to move up the ladder after the 2012 election.
Senate Republicans and their aides say the way in which the lower-ranking members of the leadership react to a controversial contingency plan offered by Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellLawmakers push one-week stopgap funding bill Overnight Finance: Inside Trump's tax plan | White House mulls order pulling out of NAFTA | New fight over Dodd-Frank begins Dem rep: Trump's tax plan as believable as 'magic, unicorns or Batman' MORE (R-Ky.) could have a lasting impact.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the No. 2 in that chamber’s GOP leadership, is retiring next year. Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderGroups warn of rural health 'crisis' under ObamaCare repeal Trump’s Army pick faces tough confirmation fight Trump faces risky ObamaCare choice MORE (Tenn.), National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's 12:30 Report Overnight Defense: US moving missile defense system to South Korea | Dems want justification for Syria strike | Army pick pushes back against critics of LGBT record Disconnect: Trump, GOP not on same page MORE (Texas) and Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John ThuneJohn ThuneUnited explains passenger removal to senators Ryan praises FCC chief's plans to roll back net neutrality FCC head unveils plan to roll back net neutrality MORE (S.D.) all are possible candidates to succeed him.
Cornyn and Thune usually attend Tuesday afternoon leadership press conferences, but both lawmakers were conspicuously absent this week when McConnell rolled out his plan to give President Obama nearly unilateral authority to raise the $14.3 trillion debt limit.
Alexander, Kyl and Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman John BarrassoJohn BarrassoPoll: Sanders most popular senator in the US The animal advocate Trump climate move risks unraveling Paris commitments MORE (Wyo.) were present.
Thune attended a rare Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House that day, while Cornyn said he skipped it because he expected many of the questions to focus on the debt-limit negotiations. He said those questions were best answered by McConnell and Kyl, who have been closely involved in the talks.
Republican aides say lawmakers who back the plan could cost themselves in future leadership races.
“The McConnell plan landed with a thud in our conference and with the grassroots outside the Capitol,” a Senate GOP aide said. “The prime supporters of the McConnell plan aren’t doing themselves any favors in future leadership races.”
A Republican senator said those who are looking to succeed Kyl likely know that conservative freshmen, who don’t like McConnell’s proposal, will scrutinize their actions very carefully.
“The freshmen certainly aren’t afraid to speak up and speak out and challenge the leadership,” the lawmaker said. “There’s nothing wrong about that, but it’s not like it was in the old days. It’s possible that Cornyn and Thune have that in the back of their minds.”
Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers also have panned McConnell’s proposal.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, said on a radio show Wednesday: “It’s like leaving the jail door open and looking the other way, then saying it’s not our fault.”
Alexander has taken a leading role in defending McConnell’s contingency plan, which would authorize the president to request a $2.5 trillion increase in the debt limit that would be made in three tranches. Congress could block those requests only by passing a resolution of disapproval.
The Tennessee Republican spoke up in defense of the plan Wednesday at a closed-door lunch meeting and immediately felt a backlash. His home-state colleague, Sen. Bob CorkerBob CorkerThe Hill's 12:30 Report Senate Foreign Relations chair: Erdogan referendum win 'not something to applaud' Groups warn of rural health 'crisis' under ObamaCare repeal MORE (R-Tenn.), stood up to forcefully rebut his argument, according to a lawmaker who attended.
Alexander said in an interview that he was not concerned about how his support for McConnell’s fall-back plan might affect him in a future leadership race.
“I don’t cast my votes based upon issues like that,” he said. “I try to uphold my oath to the Constitution and do what I think is best for the country.”
Meanwhile, Cornyn and Thune have kept their distance.
Thune said, like McConnell, he views the contingency plan as a last-choice option.
“I’m like everybody — I don’t want to see that happen,” he said. “I would like to see us get to an agreement where we are actually doing something about spending, but in the event that doesn’t happen, at least now there is an alternative.”
Thune has worked on his own to push the passage of the Cut, Cap and Balance Act, which would tie an increase of the debt ceiling to dramatic spending cuts, enforceable spending caps and Congress passing a balanced-budget amendment. Many Republicans support it.
Thune did not attend a Tuesday meeting with members of the Senate Tea Party Caucus — including Sens. DeMint, Rand PaulRand PaulDestructive 'fat cat' tax law a complete flop. It's time to repeal it. Trump must take action in Macedonia to fix damage done by Obama and Clinton We can put America first by preventing public health disasters MORE (R-Ky.) and Mike LeeMike LeeTrump signs order to end 'egregious abuse' of national monuments Trump takes aim at Obama monuments Trump should work with Congress to block regulations on prepaid cards MORE (R-Utah) — and House conservatives, who are plotting passage of that plan. The meeting took place shortly after McConnell announced his contingency plan at the conference meeting.
Instead, Thune met separately with House Republicans who are pushing the Cut, Cap and Balance plan. If Thune had joined DeMint and his closest allies, it could have been seen as a snub of McConnell.
After receiving strong push-back in Wednesday’s meeting for defending the McConnell contingency plan, Alexander on Thursday issued a press release reminding reporters that he had co-sponsored the Cut, Cap and Balance plan.
“I will support serious proposals like the ‘Cut, Cap and Balance Act’ to reduce out-of-control Washington spending,” he said in the statement. “The final version of any such legislation should have an appropriate balance between reductions in both entitlement and discretionary spending, but this bill is a good start in the right direction.”