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 McConnellKey House and Senate health leaders reach deal to stop surprise medical bills Biden: 'No party should have too much power' Overnight Energy: Pelosi vows bold action to counter 'existential' climate threat | Trump jokes new light bulbs don't make him look as good | 'Forever chemicals' measure pulled from defense bill MORE (Ky.) used a weekend trip to woo star GOP freshmen away from the Tea Party.

McConnell took Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHere are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump TikTok's leader to meet with lawmakers next week GOP senators unveil bill to expand 'opportunity zone' reporting requirements MORE (R-Fla.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonTrump, GOP shift focus from alleged surveillance abuse to Durham Russia probe Here are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump GOP senators request interview with former DNC contractor to probe possible Ukraine ties 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 GrahamGraham expects Horowitz investigation to show evidence was manipulated, withheld Trump's exceptionalism: No president has so disrespected our exceptional institutions Trump, GOP shift focus from alleged surveillance abuse to Durham Russia probe MORE (R-S.C.) and Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrGOP senators request interview with former DNC contractor to probe possible Ukraine ties North Carolina congressman says he won't seek reelection after redistricting Senate passes bipartisan bill to permanently fund historically black colleges 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 PaulTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans Democratic congressman calls for study of effects of sex-trafficking law McConnell says he's 'honored' to be WholeFoods Magazine's 2019 'Person of the Year' MORE of Kentucky and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeHillicon Valley: Pelosi works to remove legal protections for tech companies from USMCA | Treasury sanctions Russian group over 0 million hack | Facebook sues Chinese individuals for ad fraud | Huawei takes legal action against FCC Senators defend bipartisan bill on facial recognition as cities crack down Trump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans 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 PortmanHere are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump Lawmakers call for investigation into program meant to help student loan borrowers with disabilities Senators sound alarm on dangers of ransomware attacks after briefing MORE (R-Ohio) and John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanThe job no GOP senator wants: 'I'd rather have a root canal' Eleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid VA chief pressed on efforts to prevent veteran suicides 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 CornynTrump, GOP shift focus from alleged surveillance abuse to Durham Russia probe Hillicon Valley: FTC rules Cambridge Analytica engaged in 'deceptive practices' | NATO researchers warn social media failing to remove fake accounts | Sanders calls for breaking up Comcast, Verizon Bipartisan senators call on FERC to protect against Huawei threats 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 MurkowskiHere are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump Senate confirms eight Trump court picks in three days The Hill's Morning Report - Dem impeachment report highlights phone records MORE (R-Alaska), Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoThe job no GOP senator wants: 'I'd rather have a root canal' Lawmakers battle over future of Ex-Im Bank Eleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid MORE (R-Idaho) and Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerThere's a lot to like about the Senate privacy bill, if it's not watered down Trade deal talks expand as Congress debates tech legal shield Hillicon Valley: House passes anti-robocall bill | Senators inch forward on privacy legislation | Trump escalates fight over tech tax | Illinois families sue TikTok | Senators get classified briefing on ransomware 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.”