Right’s new check on McConnell

Thirty-seven-year-old freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has become a conservative foil to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Cotton surprised his colleagues last week by exploiting a procedural loophole that allowed him to circumvent negotiations on Iran between McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.).

{mosads}In this case, Cotton was able to file an amendment to legislation granting Congress power to review a nuclear deal with Iran that would require Iran to recognize Israel. If the amendment is added to the bill, it will kill it, according to members in both parties.

The power play reflects Cotton’s emerging Senate role as a conservative check on McConnell, who many on the right suspect is too much of a deal-maker for his own good.

It also highlighted the tension between McConnell and his conservative critics.

The majority leader doesn’t want Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) Israel amendment to derail the Iran bill, because he wants to rack up accomplishments to show the Senate GOP can govern. On Tuesday, he listed trade legislation and the Iran measure as likely the two biggest accomplishments of the 114th Congress.  

Conservatives want to push bold proposals that highlight differences between the parties. In this instance, they want to force Democrats to take a stand on picking between recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and a tentative deal with Iran.

“There’s this contrast between governing and laying out a governing agenda,” said Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action for America.  

Conservative activists were appalled by McConnell’s recent vote to confirm Loretta Lynch as the nation’s 83rd attorney general, even though she endorsed an expansive view of executive power and President Obama’s action to protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation.

They were also alarmed by his speedy approval of a bipartisan deal to permanently wipe out scheduled cuts in doctors’ Medicare payments.

“Most of these bills that are being passed are with near unanimous support from Democrats and Mitch McConnell,” said Ken Cuccinelli, president of the Senate Conservatives Fund.

The Club for Growth and Heritage Action, two prominent conservative lobbying groups, urged senators to oppose the doc-fix deal and scored it a key vote.

A senior GOP aide, however, pointed out that Cotton and the vast majority of Republicans voted for the permanent doc fix, which passed 92 to 8. 

Cotton’s move on the Iran bill also highlights what some say is a void on the right created by the presidential campaign.

Some worry there are fewer strong conservative voices at Senate GOP meetings to hold McConnell’s “feet to the fire” because Rubio and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are on the campaign trail.

“Without the anchor of those three, I think Mitch McConnell is going to do whatever he wants and do what he does best, and that’s broker deals,” said Drew Ryun, political director of the Madison Project. “The tension for those three is going to be doing both, holding Mitch McConnell’s feet to the fire and still running effective presidential campaigns.”

“Certainly the absence of those three is going to be noticed,” said Holler. “Numbers are important in the Senate and when they take a position on an issue they have an ability to move their colleagues.”

Cruz urged his colleagues to block Lynch from receiving an up-or-down vote, but he missed the final tally, provoking a storm of criticism that received more press attention than McConnell’s affirmative vote.

“We’re seeing one of the minuses with Cruz having missed the final vote on Lynch. So that becomes a subject of focus,” said Cuccinelli. “People are going to ask how are you going to balance,” serving in the Senate and running for president.

“The inability to be actually present is a negative,” he added.

Cruz missed nearly seven in 10 votes in April according to GovTrack. Rubio missed two in 10 votes this month and Paul did not miss any votes.

Cuccinelli, however, argued the missed votes and meetings in the Senate were more than offset by the positive impact of Cruz and Rubio giving greater prominence to their conservative messages by running for president.

“They certainly now have a different platform to raise the public pressure even more,” he said. “The biggest plus along the lines I was mentioning, they’re all out there now talking about how terrible it is that Loretta Lynch was confirmed.

“If you’ve got some of your most powerful opponent senators out there getting national coverage, part of how they’re going to demonstrate that it’s worth voting for them is to say, ‘I oppose this stuff. Look at what they’re doing in Washington,” he added.

— This story was updated on May 5.

Tags Harry Reid Iran Israel Marco Rubio Mitch McConnell nuclear talks Rand Paul Ted Cruz Tom Cotton
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