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Senate GOP leadership faces post-election shake-up

Senate GOP leadership faces post-election shake-up
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Anti-establishment fervor roiling the presidential race may soon tumble the Senate Republican hierarchy.

Several lawmakers claim that under Senate Republican Conference rules, three of the five top-ranking leaders must step down from their posts after the election 

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At least one rising conservative star — Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeDemocrats block GOP bill to lift mask mandate on public transportation Senate confirms Biden pick for No. 2 role at Interior Big Tech critic Lina Khan named chair of the FTC MORE (R-Utah), the only Republican senator to endorse fellow Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzNew Jersey governor tweaks Cruz on Cancun over moving truck quip Hirono tells Ted Cruz to stop 'mansplaining' Senate Republicans: Newly proposed ATF rules could pave way for national gun registry MORE (R-Texas) for president — wants to move up the ranks.

Lee has made phone calls to colleagues about running for the Republican Policy Committee chairmanship, now held by Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoObama land management chief says Biden nominee should withdraw over tree-spiking incident Juan Williams: Trump's GOP descends into farce Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE (R-Wyo.), the fourth-ranking member of GOP leadership. 

“Sen. Lee is a natural fit for the position. He’s been making calls since last week. And he’s been getting an enthusiastic response from those he’s called,” said a Senate GOP aide.

Lee’s spokesman, Conn Carroll, declined to comment.

A challenge for Lee and anyone else seeking to move up the ladder, however, is that other Republicans in the Senate interpret the rules differently.

One GOP leadership aide argued Monday that the limit doesn’t kick in until the end of 2018. Under that interpretation, Barrasso and Sens. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - GOP torpedoes election bill; infrastructure talks hit snag White House digs in as infrastructure talks stall On The Money: Democrats make full-court press on expanded child tax credit | White House confident Congress will raise debt ceiling MORE (R-S.D.) and Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate to vote on elections bill Congress barrels toward debt cliff Excellence Act will expand mental health and substance use treatment access to millions MORE (R-Mo.) would be safe from term limits.

The Senate Republican Conference rules are explicit: “A senator shall serve no more than three terms in any elected party leadership position other than Floor Leader or President Pro Tempore.”

That means Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCan Manchin answer his predecessor's call on voting rights? Biden at Sen. John Warner's funeral: He 'gave me confidence' Democrats' narrow chance to retain control after 2022 MORE (R-Ky.) can serve in the top spot for as long as we wants.

The second-ranking leader, Senate GOP Whip John CornynJohn CornynSenators say White House aides agreed to infrastructure 'framework' Cornyn calls on Biden and Harris to visit southern border: 'Y'all come visit' Progressive groups launch .5M ad buy to pressure Sinema on filibuster MORE (R-Texas), who didn’t assume his post until 2013, is also immune from the term-limit rule.

Thune, Barrasso and Blunt are in a different position.

All three took their leadership posts at the beginning of 2012, after Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderAuthorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate The Republicans' deep dive into nativism Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain MORE (R-Tenn.) resigned in the middle of the 112th Congress.

The rules state that terms of office for party leaders “shall extend for not more than two years and shall expire at the close of each Congress.”

Nowhere do the rules state a term must last for any set amount of time.

The GOP leadership aide argued that “the partial term in 2012 doesn’t count toward their six-year term limit.

"The current leadership team was elected in early 2012, after Sen. Alexander stepped down, and were all reelected in November of 2012 for their first full term in leadership," the GOP leadership aide said. "As is precedent with our committee chairmen, the partial term in 2012 does not count toward their six-year term limits."

But others disagree.

“The conference rule is black and white on this issue,” said a GOP aide who argues that Thune, Barrasso and Blunt face term limits at the end of this Congress.

Don Stewart, McConnell's spokesman, said his boss thinks the leadership team should remain intact. 

He said partial terms aren't counted against term limits for committee chairmen and the same concept applies for elected leadership positions.
 
"The members determined that a partial term as chairman does not count, for purposes of term limits, as a full term. Therefore, Sens. Thune, Barrasso and Blunt are all eligible to run again," he said. "The leader believes they’ve all done a great job, and he hopes that they do all run again."

The issue is becoming a hot topic among GOP senators.

“Absolutely we should enforce term limits on leadership, new blood is beneficial,” said one Republican senator who requested anonymity to comment on internal leadership deliberations.

“Why have term-limit rules if we keep waiving them?” the lawmaker added.

Lee, who currently serves as chairman of the Senate Republican Steering Committee, hosts a well-attended lunch every Wednesday. He’s contacting colleagues on the assumption that Barrasso is term-limited at the end of this year.

A final interpretation of the rules will have to be settled behind closed doors between now and Election Day.

Thune, Barrasso and Blunt have served in McConnell’s inner circle for years.

If he is term-limited, Thune, the third-ranking GOP leader, would face a tough decision. Will he challenge McConnell or Cornyn to move up the leadership ladder? Or will he take a demotion or drop out of leadership altogether to focus on his work as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee?

A challenge to McConnell seems far-fetched now, but if Republicans lose four or more seats and control of the upper chamber in November, rank-and-file senators may want a new CEO.

Thune’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Barrasso’s most logical step would be to run for Thune’s job, said a GOP aide. 

That could put him in a race with Blunt, who now serves as the Senate Republican Conference vice chairman.

In 2006, Blunt lost a race for House majority leader to John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerAre maskless House members scofflaws? Israel, Democrats and the problem of the Middle East Joe Crowley to register as lobbyist for recording artists MORE, the Ohio Republican who went on to become Speaker. The career setback for Blunt — which The New York Times described as a “stunning upset” — led to a later Senate run.   

An aide to Barrasso said her boss would address his leadership aspirations at the appropriate time.

“It seems too early to be talking about leadership elections when so much remains to be done. Sen. Barrasso is focused right now on keeping the Senate majority this fall. However, at the right time, later in the year, he will talk to his colleagues about the future,” said Bronwyn Lance Chester, Barrasso’s spokeswoman.

“Sen. Barrasso continues to want to serve the Republican conference, and there will be plenty of time to discuss that,” she added.

Brian Hart, Blunt’s spokesman, said, “The senator is focused on his reelection to the Senate this fall.”

Blunt also faces a potentially difficult reelection race. Democrats have high hopes that Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander can defeat Blunt if 2016 becomes a wave election.

Other senators could also be involved in a positioning fight.

Brian Darling, a former Senate aide and GOP strategist, said Lee, Cruz and Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulPoll: 58 percent say Fauci should not resign Fauci says he puts 'very little weight in the craziness of condemning me' Senate confirms Biden pick for No. 2 role at Interior MORE (R-Ky.) — his former boss — are all rising stars with solid conservative credentials.

“Mike Lee would be a great leader,” Darling added. “Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are obviously leaders who have run for president or are running for president. They have shown leadership.”