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Senate conservatives’ Help Wanted sign: A McConnell successor who fights Dems more

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Senate conservatives have a list of early demands for anyone who wants to replace Mitch McConnell: Commit to term limits on the top spot, revamp internal committee assignments and do not bend to Democrats, even on must-pass legislation.

That pressure has turned willingness to work across the aisle into the preeminent wedge issue in the race for GOP leader as Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) fight for supporters behind the scenes.

It reflects the right flank’s growing frustration with the longest-serving Republican leader’s occasional interest in working with the other side on issues like spending, infrastructure and foreign aid — a criticism considered laughable less than a decade ago. Few younger Republicans recall McConnell’s longtime reputation as the “Grim Reaper” who killed Democratic bills, or his zeal in blocking Merrick Garland from a spot on the Supreme Court.

But the GOP leader has steered his conference away from government shutdowns, preferring to compromise and move on rather than see voters blame his party for the resulting mess. Senate conservatives, buoyed by former President Donald Trump’s bombastic style of politicking, argue that’s an antiquated way of thinking.

“Compromise is not the problem,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). “The problem is where you choose to make the deals and where you draw the line, in particular in spending bills. Yeah, I got a problem with how they’ve been drawn.”

Hardline Republicans like Lee, though they’re in the minority of the GOP, are pushing back against a more conciliatory wing of their conference that sees the Senate as a bastion of bipartisan collaboration in a broken capital. So, Lee is pushing leadership hopefuls and colleagues to join a pledge to block all “political and judicial” nominees for the rest of the term and muck up Democratic legislative priorities — tactics the right launched after Donald Trump was convicted.

Still, in a Senate where neither party is close to the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster, many Republicans say there are limits to how many wins they can stack up — especially in the minority.

It’s a dynamic that McConnell is very familiar with.

“I read that one of my colleagues said my job was to be with whatever position was the majority position of my conference,” McConnell said in an interview earlier this spring, addressing internal criticism of his leadership.

Had that been the case, McConnell added, “we would have never raised the debt ceiling and never funded the government.”

The GOP leader has also publicly and privately advocated against weakening the leader’s power, including at a private conference lunch this month. He and allies argue conservative proposals like term limits would hamstring the leader, affecting the ability to fundraise and avert legislative disaster.

“[McConnell] has strong feelings about the role of the leader and what’s necessary for a successful conference,” said Cornyn, referring to McConnell’s comments at the closed-door meeting. “That’s what I concluded from it.”

Thune said McConnell has relayed his concerns to the conference and that he believes “everybody will take his advice to heart.” Cornyn had endorsed putting a three-term limit on the leader, as has Scott, while Thune has said it’s worth discussing but made no firm commitments.

Asked about the general conservative complaints, Cornyn said he’s not running his leadership race through the press and declined to weigh in on how he’d tackle bipartisanship as leader. Thune, the current GOP whip, said he understands his fellow senators’ perspective but that “if there are things that we have to get done, then I’ve got to be able to do that.” Scott, who’s previously challenged McConnell, said he is advocating for strengthened committees and “a robust amendment process” for input on legislation.

Forcing the Senate GOP leader to get a majority of Republicans on board for every action is almost surely impossible in practice. On a day-to-day-basis, though, some of the conference’s most rabble-rousing are questioning GOP leaders’ day-to-day strategies.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a McConnell critic, said he feels rank-and-file members don’t get enough input and alleged that current leadership likes “to stay as far away from members as possible.”

“Don’t listen, don’t talk to members. Don’t listen to any priorities,” he said, describing the status quo in the Senate GOP. “And try to manipulate them into getting them to do what you want them to do.”

McConnell and his leadership team attend weekly party lunches to discuss conference matters, including member pushback to legislation or other issues. And McConnell has at times backed away from legislation when it’s lost the support of his conference, like the recent border deal negotiated between Senate Democrats and Republicans earlier this year.

Still, McConnell critics like Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said “we have a leadership vacuum right now. We’re pretty well rudderless.”

Johnson is among those who has signed Lee’s letter vowing to block nominees on the Senate floor in response to Trump’s conviction, which has become something of a litmus test among ambitious conservatives. Scott has signed on, as has Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who is competing for the conference’s No. 3 spot.

Yet multiple signers of the letter have since supported some Biden nominees, underscoring just how difficult it is for leaders to stonewall action in a chamber that relies on frequent agreements among all 100 members.

There is a second Senate GOP pledge circulating to block all judicial and U.S. attorney nominees, specifically targeting those who “have suggested the Trump prosecutions were reasonable.” Fewer senators have co-signed that effort, and no leadership candidates have endorsed it.

The long list of demands coming from the right is reminding some Senate Republicans of last year’s speaker’s race, where conservatives tried to hold former Speaker Kevin McCarthy to a lofty list of promises in exchange for electing him to lead the chamber. Once elected, they’d hoped McCarthy would avoid working with Democrats as much as possible.

When the impending breach of the debt limit forced McCarthy to work across the aisle, his ouster became all but assured. The monthlong chaos that followed his exit left many House Republicans openly embarrassed about their disarray.

Some Senate GOP dealmakers are worried they’re about to perform a cover of McCarthy’s sad ballad, warning that it’s misguided to slap handcuffs on the incoming leader before he or she even tries to guide the conference.

“We will be making an enormous mistake if we let a minority of our members further weaken an already weak leader,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). He charged that some Senate Republicans “are just not paying attention to the reality of what has occurred as a result of that in the House.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), among the most bipartisan-friendly senators in the chamber, said McConnell has done “what he thinks is right.” And as for the next leader, she added, “I don’t think it’s going to change.”

She may be proven right. The November leadership elections are still months away, and votes are cast in private. That means even the conference’s most vocal rabble-rousers are protected from public scrutiny, should they choose to vote for a pragmatic candidate.

In addition, other leadership hopefuls could still hop into the race. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who chairs the conference’s campaign arm, remains the most prominent possible contender. If Election Day proves fruitful for the Senate GOP, Daines could jump in and make it interesting: He’s a staunch conservative who is already backing a tough legislative response to Trump’s conviction.

Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), a pugnacious first-term lawmaker, said he’s still open-minded about the leadership race. But as he talks to candidates, he’s looking for a change agent.

“I just want to make sure that our conference is in touch with our voters, right? And the people who send us here want us to fight for certain things. I want our agenda to reflect that,” Schmitt said. “That will be important for whoever the next leader is.”