GOP leaders maneuver over McConnell's fall-back plan for raising the debt

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 McConnell (R-Ky.) could have a lasting impact.

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“This is one of about a dozen things that will make a difference in a leadership race,” said a Republican lawmaker who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive subject of changes to leadership. 

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the No. 2 in that chamber’s GOP leadership, is retiring next year. Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) and Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (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 Barrasso (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 Corker (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 Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (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.”