One week into the session, Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidTo Build Back Better, we need a tax system where everyone pays their fair share Democrats say Biden must get more involved in budget fight Biden looks to climate to sell economic agenda MORE (D-Nev.) and the rest of the Senate leadership have barely made it out of the starting gate.
Prospects for pushing through items like a repeal of the Pentagon’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy and the DREAM Act appear bleak. And, for some Senate Republicans, the political benefit of standing as lame-duck roadblocks heavily outweighs any incentive to move the legislative agenda.
Republicans have been warned by their Senate campaign chief to expect primary challenges in 2012, which didn’t come as news to centrist Republicans like Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe and Scott Brown of Massachusetts.
But even Republicans on the more conservative end of the spectrum are looking over their shoulders in anticipation of a challenge from the right, and they’re using the lame-duck session to make some early campaign moves.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who’s in the crosshairs of some Tea Party activists thanks to his vote in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, is President Obama’s main Senate obstacle on ratification of the START Treaty.
Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerGOP senator will 'probably' vote for debt limit increase Rep. Tim Ryan becomes latest COVID-19 breakthrough case in Congress Top Republican: General told senators he opposed Afghanistan withdrawal MORE (R-Miss.), also mentioned as a possible Tea Party target in 2012, has blasted Senate Democrats for trying to force repeal of DADT in the lame-duck session.
Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchLobbying world Congress, stop holding 'Dreamers' hostage Drug prices are declining amid inflation fears MORE (R-Utah), an original sponsor of the DREAM Act, voted against adding it to defense authorization legislation, saying Democrats were trying to load a must-pass bill with campaign fodder.
Strategists say it all points to 2012.
“Whether or not you’re someone like Olympia Snowe, who you can never really accuse of kowtowing to conservatives, now is the time to show you got the message in 2010,” said Republican pollster Jim McLaughlin.
For Snowe, there are signs that her willingness to work with Senate Democrats and act as a force of moderation within her own party — a hallmark of her two terms in the Senate and the primary reason her name stands atop the Tea Party’s list of 2012 GOP targets — are disappearing.
Snowe’s centrist colleague, Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCollins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid McConnell privately urged GOP senators to oppose debt ceiling hike GOP senator will 'probably' vote for debt limit increase MORE (R-Maine), favors a repeal of DADT, but Snowe is holding out for the release of a Pentagon report, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expediting. Snowe also has signed on to support a legal brief challenging the constitutionality of the healthcare law and has not yet made any definitive pronouncements on where she stands on the START Treaty or the DREAM Act.
Hailing from a state that just elected a Tea Party-backed governor, political insiders in Maine say Snowe is already reaching out to Tea Party activists and other would-be conservative powerbrokers who have been talking about a primary challenge two years from now. Denying Senate Democrats another Republican vote on something like DADT might boost her credentials with them.
One notable exception among those GOP senators preparing for tough 2012 primaries is Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.). The six-term senator has shown little desire to move toward compromise even as his name quickly climbs the list of Tea Party targets.
Lugar, who recently released an internal poll that showed him the most popular Republican in Indiana, has some $2.4 million in the bank and is practically daring a conservative challenger to take him on two years from now.
“Lugar’s on the high ground,” said Mark Helmke, a senior adviser to the longtime senator. Helmke said Lugar expects that he will have a primary challenge and he’s preparing accordingly, “but he’s not going to be changing any of his positions.”
Lugar has shown no sign of compromise on the major agenda items in the lame duck, like the START Treaty and repeal of DADT. Lugar has suggested that Senate Republicans are playing politics on START and was one of the few Republicans who didn’t go along with a ban on earmarks.
He’s also one of just nine Republican senators who did not sign on to the legal brief challenging healthcare reform. Aside from Brown, Lugar is the only Republican up for reelection in 2012 who didn’t lend his name.
Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist said he’s also seen an increase in outreach to conservative activists among some members worried about challenges from the right in 2012, particularly those who represent conservative states where Tea Party-backed candidates would more easily win general-election fights if they were successful in primaries.
“The model to follow in this case is John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCollins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Meghan McCain: Country has not 'healed' from Trump under Biden Biden steps onto global stage with high-stakes UN speech MORE,” said Norquist, who said the Arizona senator survived his primary not by changing core principles but by refocusing on spending and fiscal issues. “The example to avoid is Mike Castle in Delaware.” Castle lost the GOP Senate primary to Tea Party-backed Christine O’Donnell.
Norquist said “everybody was motivated by the Tea Party in 2010” and the current gridlock in the lame-duck session of Congress is one of the first results. “The earth has shifted and people are looking for ways to adjust. Three years ago, you couldn’t credibly say that delivering earmark money for your state could be a vote-loser.”
Still, Republican strategist Tyler Harber says while the lame-duck session certainly offers the chance for senators to make some moves to the right, or, in the case of Lugar, stand firm on principle, the die is likely already cast with Tea Party activists.
“You can certainly do some things in the lame-duck to burnish your conservative credentials,” said Harber. “But if you’re on the Tea Party hit list, there probably isn’t a damn thing you can do to get off it.”