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 McConnellDemocrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' Romney pledges 'open mind' ahead of impeachment trial McConnell proposes compressed schedule for impeachment trial MORE (Ky.) used a weekend trip to woo star GOP freshmen away from the Tea Party.

McConnell took Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioApple under pressure to unlock Pensacola shooter's phones Senators offer bill to create alternatives to Huawei in 5G tech Surging Sanders draws fresh scrutiny ahead of debate MORE (R-Fla.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonTrump lawyers urge senators to swiftly acquit Trump in impeachment trial Hillicon Valley: Barr asks Apple to unlock Pensacola shooter's phone | Tech industry rallies behind Google in Supreme Court fight | Congress struggles to set rules for cyber warfare with Iran | Blog site Boing Boing hacked Congress struggles on rules for cyber warfare with Iran MORE (R-Wis.) and Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteGOP fears Trump backlash in suburbs Trump makes rare trip to Clinton state, hoping to win back New Hampshire Key endorsements: A who's who in early states 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 GrahamWhite House appoints GOP House members to advise Trump's impeachment team Hypocrisy is the currency of the realm for GOP in the age of Trump Lawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown MORE (R-S.C.) and Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrJuan Williams: Counting the votes to remove Trump Hillicon Valley: Apple, Barr clash over Pensacola shooter's phone | Senate bill would boost Huawei alternatives | DHS orders agencies to fix Microsoft vulnerability | Chrome to phase out tracking cookies Senators offer bill to create alternatives to Huawei in 5G tech 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 PaulJuan Williams: Counting the votes to remove Trump Mitch McConnell may win the impeachment and lose the Senate GOP threatens to weaponize impeachment witnesses amid standoff MORE of Kentucky and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSenators are politicians, not jurors — they should act like it Sens. Kaine, Lee: 'We should not be at war with Iran unless Congress authorizes it' Overnight Defense: War powers fight runs into impeachment | Kaine has 51 votes for Iran resolution | Trump plans to divert .2B from Pentagon to border wall 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 KirkWhy Republicans are afraid to call a key witness in the impeachment inquiry Ex-Rep. Duffy to join lobbying firm BGR Bottom Line MORE (R-Ill.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanHillicon Valley: Biden calls for revoking tech legal shield | DHS chief 'fully expects' Russia to try to interfere in 2020 | Smaller companies testify against Big Tech 'monopoly power' Bipartisan group of senators introduces legislation to boost state cybersecurity leadership Senate approves Trump trade deal with Canada, Mexico MORE (R-Ohio) and John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanAppropriators fume over reports of Trump plan to reprogram .2 billion for wall The job no GOP senator wants: 'I'd rather have a root canal' Eleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid 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 CornynDemocrats worry a speedy impeachment trial will shut out public Sunday shows - All eyes on Senate impeachment trial Cornyn disputes GAO report on withholding of Ukraine aid: It's 'certainly not a crime' 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 MurkowskiJuan Williams: Counting the votes to remove Trump Roberts under pressure from both sides in witness fight Murkowski wants senators to 'really hear the case' before deciding on impeachment witnesses MORE (R-Alaska), Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoDrug price outrage threatens to be liability for GOP It's time for the Senate to advance cannabis banking reform On The Money: Senate chairman opposes cannabis banking bill | Panel advances Trump pick for Small Business Administration | Judge tosses NY state fraud charges against Manafort MORE (R-Idaho) and Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerLawmakers introduce bill to bolster artificial intelligence, quantum computing Enes Kanter sees political stardom — after NBA and WWE Hillicon Valley: House panel unveils draft of privacy bill | Senate committee approves bill to sanction Russia | Dems ask HUD to review use of facial recognition | Uber settles sexual harassment charges for .4M 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.”