The Washington Post

Amid unusual burst of bipartisan­ship, Mcconnell’s deputies go separate ways


For the third time in a month, Senate Republican­s on Wednesday splintered on a key vote and ushered a Democratic priority toward President Biden’s desk.

Seventeen Republican­s joined 47 members of the Democratic caucus to approve the

$280 billion Chips and Science Act, a bid to relaunch the domestic semiconduc­tor industry. That follows 15 Republican­s last week joining 49 members of the Democratic caucus to confirm Judge J. Michelle Childs to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, giving her a leg up toward the ultimate judicial promotion of the Supreme Court.

And in late June, 15 Republican­s joined all 50 members of the Democratic caucus to pass the most expansive gun violence prevention legislatio­n in nearly 30 years. A few Republican­s are even trying to round up a similar level of support for legislatio­n that would codify the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed the right to same-sex marriage.

It’s an unusual burst of bipartisan­ship under the watch of Senate Minority Leader Mitch Mcconnell (R-KY.), whose leadership team has been remarkably unified for years. Instead, as Mcconnell himself supported two of the recent measures, his deputies broke into competing ranks and demonstrat­ed small — but important — difference­s in how they approach the current 50-50 Senate and how they might possibly lead Republican­s in the post-mcconnell future.

Officially, Senate Republican­s view these as singular moments in which policy and politics merged to prove mutually beneficial.

“You can’t interpret too much out of this other than these are sort of, I think, one-off issues,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 leader as minority whip, said after Wednesday’s vote.

Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), who spent a decade in official leadership posts, said Wednesday, “I refuse to be in that camp that says we can’t do anything with Democrats because we don’t want them to get any wins.”

Cornyn said the parties remain at loggerhead­s on the “major problems” of inflation, crime and border security, which will be the GOP’S focal point in the November elections. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for other opportunit­ies,” he said.

And Mcconnell, in interviews in late June, after he supported the gun violence prevention bill, said that it would make “America safer” and also give Republican­s a chance to appeal to voters “in the suburbs that we need to regain to hopefully be a majority next year.”

To be sure, Republican­s are not falling in line behind the Biden agenda. Next week, when Democrats hope to advance a broad party-line budget bill, all 50 Republican­s plan to fiercely contest the plan that would lower prescripti­on drug costs for seniors, shore up the health-care marketplac­e and raise taxes on the wealthy.

But in the recent bipartisan votes, a large bloc of Senate Republican­s has shown a willingnes­s to cut deals. Most Republican­s expect Mcconnell to serve as leader at least through 2024, setting the record for longest-serving Senate leader, and he might stay on through 2026.

The three most discussed as aspirants to succeed him — Cornyn, Thune and Sen. John Barrasso (R-wyo.), sometimes called “the Three Johns” by insiders — do not like to openly talk about Mcconnell moving on.

“I don’t know whether that will ever come to pass, or if it does, when,” Cornyn said in a late June interview.

They most often vote in sync on tough votes, such as last summer when 19 Republican­s, including Mcconnell, voted for the more than $1 trillion infrastruc­ture legislatio­n. Barrasso, Cornyn and Thune all voted no, just as they all voted yes last October to advance a bill to allow the debt ceiling to be lifted.

But this summer Cornyn, who remains an appointed “counsel” to Mcconnell’s team, has emerged as the aspiring leader most willing to take some votes that veer outside conservati­ve orthodoxy.

After years of failed talks on guns, Cornyn took an assignment from Mcconnell to figure out a bipartisan plan that eventually included slightly enhanced background checks and an infusion of federal support for states to create laws designed to temporaril­y remove firearms from people deemed at risk of harming themselves or others.

The result provoked some attacks on Cornyn and led to a heavy amount of booing at the Texas GOP convention. But over two decades, he’s developed conservati­ve bona fides on plenty of issues and instead demonstrat­ed that he wanted the senatorial gravitas that comes with being the person who can make a deal.

Sometimes senators know legislatio­n needs to pass, but prefer it happens without their own imprimatur so they avoid the spotlight.

“That’s part of the price of the leadership position. You’re going to take some of that heat, and you take it on,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a close Thune ally who appreciate­s Cornyn’s recent work.

Cornyn also helped negotiate the infusion of funds to kick start the semiconduc­tor and manufactur­ing sectors, while supporting Childs at the behest of her home-state senators, South Carolina Republican­s Lindsey O. Graham and Tim Scott.

His broader message is defending the Senate as an institutio­n, which often appeals to colleagues, if not to political activists.

“There are a lot of people that I’ve been talking to over the last few weeks who really wonder whether our institutio­ns can work,” he said after concluding the gun talks. “And I think this is even more fundamenta­l than the issue at hand — demonstrat­ing that the Senate as an institutio­n and Congress as an institutio­n can produce something and work.”

Barrasso, who is No. 3 in leadership and could eventually settle for a promotion to Thune’s post, has positioned himself as the most reflexivel­y conservati­ve of Mcconnell’s deputies. He took the position opposite to Cornyn on all three recent votes, remaining defiant against the massive subsidies in this week’s bill to prop up U.S. manufactur­ers.

“It’s spending we shouldn’t be doing. It’s government subsidizin­g one industry,” Barrasso said in an interview Tuesday.

He opposed Childs and, with a swing of his arm moving upward, noted that she might have an easier path to the Supreme Court, having taken the appellate court seat that Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson vacated after her confirmati­on in April.

But Barrasso emphasized that the GOP caucus remains quite unified and the recent string of bipartisan victories for Biden is a small blip. “People are voting their conscience, their constituen­ts,” he said.

Thune also voted with conservati­ves on all three recent measures but has shown a willingnes­s to speak out against former president Donald Trump, which causes him political headaches externally but wins private kudos from GOP colleagues too afraid to do so.

Ultimately, Senate leadership races often “come down to relationsh­ips,” Thune said, that aren’t defined by a few votes. He and Cramer first met more than 30 years ago as the respective top staffers for their state Republican Party organizati­ons.

But, he added, no one knows when Mcconnell will step down.

“People make those decisions predicated upon who they think will be the strongest leader, when and if the time comes,” he said.

 ?? J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? From left, Republican Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.), John Thune (S.D.) and John Cornyn (Tex.) flank Mitch Mcconnell (Ky.), the party’s Senate leader, during a 2018 news conference on Capitol Hill.
J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/ASSOCIATED PRESS From left, Republican Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.), John Thune (S.D.) and John Cornyn (Tex.) flank Mitch Mcconnell (Ky.), the party’s Senate leader, during a 2018 news conference on Capitol Hill.

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