Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) speaks during news conference where a group of Congressional Republicans called for Senate Democrats to vote on funding for the Department of Homeland Security on February 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. | Getty
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is dropping his bid for a spot in party leadership, his office confirmed to POLITICO on Monday, ending a brief but heated intraparty feud over when the next generation of Republicans can join the GOP’s upper ranks.
The first-term senator launched a campaign earlier this month for the Republican Policy Committee chairmanship, the No. 4 slot in the party hierarchy that is currently held by Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming. Lee’s play for the position was not well received by fellow Republicans, and appeared likely to fail as it imperiled the jobs of Barrasso as well as Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota and Vice Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri.
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Lee was careful to never challenge Barrasso directly. Instead, he argued that Barrasso, Thune and Blunt are all term-limited after this year which would mean that the policy job is open at the end of the year, a contention rebutted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies. On Saturday Thune called for a Tuesday conference meeting to resolve the matter after Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) asked to put an end to the distracting debate.
While Lee’s challenge to party rules was shrugged off by McConnell, the scuffle underscored the ongoing tensions between conservatives and party leadership.
“The response has been: here we go, the leadership is blocking out the grassroots,” said Adam Brandon, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, a conservative group that supported Lee’s candidacy. “Until you have someone like Mike Lee in the leadership, there’s going to continue to be a bit of an antagonistic relationship.”
But many Republicans believed an arcane debate over internal party governance came at a poor time for Senate Republicans, who are scrapping to defend their 54-seat majority and block President Barack Obama from filling a vacant Supreme Court seat. The icy reception to Lee also seemed unlikely to advance another one of his key causes: The presidential candidacy of Sen. Ted Cruz.
Further, Lee’s argument did little to galvanize fellow conservative senators. Other than Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, few senators publicly backed Lee’s argument that the party should and would have fresh blood next year. Most GOP senators believe that Lee is a bright senator and an ideas machine from the libertarian-wing of the party, but lawmakers were reluctant to endorse a bid that effectively challenged the party’s entire hierarchy more than six months before election day.
“I’m very supportive of Mike Lee and a lot of things Mike Lee is doing. And if it were an open seat i would support Mike Lee for it,” said Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. “Like a lot of other fights, I don’t care to get involved with whether there’s term limits or not.”
Though Lee certainly irked his fellow senators with his leadership challenge, he did succeed in pushing the GOP toward a more transparent debate over the conference’s privately-kept rules. Now on Tuesday the conference is likely to codify the precedent that McConnell and other leaders say allows Barrasso, Thune and Blunt to continue in their jobs despite term limits of three, two-year terms.
When Alexander resigned from his post in the leadership at the end of 2011, Barrasso, Thune and Blunt all took their current jobs with what they say is an understanding that their partial term would not count. While former Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma did serve more than six years as party whip from 1996 until 2003, the precedent is not explicit in the GOP Conference rulebook.
Now with Lee’s action, the conference is set to make the partial-term limit exception official, though it’s still not clear what final language will emerge. Still, it appears McConnell and his allies will easily be able to cobble together a majority in the caucus to keep Barrasso, Thune and Blunt in their jobs for two more years.
Senators and aides said that Lee had done much in the previous year to bolster his working relationship with his colleagues after a nadir that followed his staff getting caught coordinating with outside groups last year. Lee has earned praise for his work as the Republican Steering Committee chairman and for whipping up support for criminal justice reform, but his public announcement of a leadership campaign last week in the Washington Examiner blindsided many senior Republicans and came in tandem with Lee’s endorsement of Rep. Marlin Stutzman in the Indiana Senate race over Rep. Todd Young, who is preferred by party leaders.
Lee spent the weekend of April 9 working the phones, calling mostly younger and less veteran senators to gauge their support for his candidacy — then launching it one week ago around the idea that the No. 4 job is vacant. But he simply could not create enough enthusiasm for his argument to topple three of the top five GOP leaders.
“First time I heard about it was when Mike Lee contacted me … He was curious as to whether or not the conference would be open to his running,” said Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota. “I said: I think the conference would be open for the discussion.”