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Kyl and Ensign Seek to Step Up

Retirements and term limits have set off a game of musical chairs at the Senate Republican leadership table, with several Senators actively working to move into top spots that will come open after the 2006 elections.

In an early public move for a pair of the second-tier leadership posts, Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.) acknowledged last week that they are pushing for the Nos. 3 and 4 positions of Republican Conference chairman and Policy Committee chairman, respectively.

Kyl already chairs the Policy Committee, but term limits will force Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) out of his Conference chairmanship after six years of service at the end of 2006, opening up that post.

“It’s my intention to try to continue to be in leadership,” said Kyl, noting he would face his own term limit at Policy by 2008 if he stayed put. “The best way to do that is to try to become Conference chair.”

Ensign has set out to replace Kyl at Policy and is actively seeking votes from fellow Senate Republicans, providing a potential Southwestern tilt to GOP leadership if both he and Kyl succeed in their bids.

“It’s my strong interest,” Ensign said last week of his bid for the Policy Committee.

The early declarations of interest from Kyl and Ensign set up a further dilemma for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who is term limited out of her position as vice chairwoman of the Conference, generally considered the No. 5 post in leadership. Hutchison is actively considering a bid for Texas governor, but that would involve the risk of running in a primary against Gov. Rick Perry (R).

“She has not made a decision yet. She’s certainly keeping all her options open,” said Terry Sullivan, Hutchison’s top political adviser in the Lone Star State.

If she were to balk at the governor’s race and run what would likely be an easy bid for re-election in 2006, Hutchison could find herself in a position of a different sort of intraparty squabble: a leadership race in the Senate.

Hutchison is believed to have her eyes on the Conference chairmanship as well, as it’s in line with the talents she’s displayed in more than four years as vice chairwoman.

The Conference chairman is generally in charge of leading the message and communications efforts, and Santorum expanded his portfolio by also serving as leader of outreach to K Street.

The Policy Committee chairman is in charge of generating position papers and data, with a large staff breaking down the impact on key issues of the day for the rest of the Conference.

As vice chairwoman of the Conference, Hutchison serves as the deputy to Santorum and is in charge of helping craft the message as well as leading floor speakers during the chamber’s “morning hour” debate. Hutchison also served as the Senate GOP’s main liaison to trade association lobbyists under Santorum.

Some GOP aides and strategists openly speculated last week about whether Kyl could be talked into staying put at Policy if Hutchison were to stay in the Senate, clearing the way for her ascension to Conference chairwoman.

And at an event for GOP women hosted by Hutchison, Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) openly stated that he expects Hutchison to chair the Conference if she remains in the Senate, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The top positions of leader and Senate Majority Whip could be filled through simple elevations, but there is one big potential wrinkle in that plan that could throw the leadership scenario into turmoil.

Having entered the race for leader more than a year ago, McConnell has already locked up enough votes to take over for Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who is retiring at the end of 2006.

While McConnell won’t officially declare victory — “Oh, I’m not going to assume anything,” he said recently — his campaign manager did so Monday.

“Mitch is being appropriately cautious,” said Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), who is McConnell’s Chief Deputy Majority Whip and closest friend in the Senate. “But we’ve got over 40 votes, and this race is beyond over. It’s a done deal.”

Santorum is openly running to move up to the No. 2 spot of Majority Whip, after a brief consideration last fall of challenging McConnell for leader. But Santorum is the Democrats’ No. 1 target for defeat in 2006 and is facing a top-tier challenger in state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. (D), and he’s making his first priority winning a third term.

“I am focused on getting re-elected first and then, obviously, I have been very clear about my intention to run for the No. 2 spot,” Santorum said recently.

While no challenger has emerged publicly for the Whip post, Santorum has an early edge if for no other reason than the Republican tendency to promote leaders in an orderly succession. If Santorum were to lose his re-election, that would make for a completely wide open race for Whip.

The race for Conference chairman — whether it’s Kyl vs. Hutchison, or just one of the two by acclamation — could turn into the battle for Whip. And each successive race could move up one rung on the ladder.

Or, a GOP Senator could jump into the Whip’s race completely from the outside. One name always lurking not too far back in the minds of GOP Senators and aides is Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the former leader who has remained a force for the past two and a half years as an elder statesman and self-anointed deal broker for the Conference.

While no one thinks Lott could challenge McConnell for leader, some think he wants to jump back into one of the lower posts. And Lott has gone out of his way to say things to the media indicating that he’s at least toying with the idea.

“I could be the asterisk,” he told Roll Call late last week.

Initial suspicions that Lott would retire at the end of his term in 2006 have diminished as he remains legislatively and politically active. And on Monday night Lott held a major, 200-person fundraiser at the Hay Adams Hotel for his 2006 re-election committee, his first big money event in the District this year.

Two other positions will also open up on the GOP leadership ladder, the vice chairmanship being vacated by Hutchison and the chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Current NRSC Chairwoman Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) is up for re-election in 2008 and cannot chair the NRSC that year.

If Hutchison leaves the Senate, some insiders suspect Dole may have a chance at becoming Conference vice chairwoman. That would keep a female voice in the leadership team.

But, if Hutchison gets the Conference post and Kyl stays at Policy, Ensign may aim lower and try to become vice chairman.

As for the NRSC, no names have been floated so far, although some GOP aides are hoping Sen. John Thune (S.D.) will show interest in the position because of his star status on the fundraising circuit as the man who beat former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D).

Mark Preston contributed to this report.

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