Kyl Faces First Test on Stimulus

Posted February 1, 2008 at 6:43pm

Barely a month into the job as the Senate GOP’s top vote counter, Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) this week faces his first high-stakes test as he looks to keep his colleagues aligned in a series of politically charged votes designed to jump-start the economy.

The task arguably would be difficult for any party Whip, especially as Republicans and Democrats alike look to convince the public that they are heeding the call to try to stave off a looming recession. But for Kyl, the lift may be even heavier since he will likely be judged against the success of his predecessor, former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

“The series of votes on the economic stimulus presents one with multiple votes on multiple issues — it’s going to create a big challenge for Kyl and an opportunity for Capitol Hill to get a look at how he’s going to manage the operation,” said one senior Republican Senate aide.

“I don’t think he could come out looking like a loser — it’s too early for that — but this could be a big springboard or a pothole in the road.”

If the early returns are an indicator, Kyl may come out a winner. Senators and aides say he already is showing he has the right mind-set for the job, and like Lott, is looking to troubleshoot potential problems before Senators head to the floor to cast votes.

Kyl spent two full days last week working his Conference to try to round up opposition to a newly crafted Senate version of the economic stimulus plan — a largely Democratic proposal containing popular items like rebates for seniors and veterans but one that cleared the Finance Committee with the backing of three GOP Senators.

Senate Democrats have been pushing hard for the Finance Committee bill, but Republican leaders are hoping to have enough votes to filibuster it and make way for passage of the narrowly drawn bipartisan House bill. GOP Senators want to begin the debate — one that promises several votes and lengthy speeches on the economy — with some political leverage to stop Democrats from tacking on what they see as unnecessary spending to the package.

In an interview Friday, Kyl acknowledged that this week’s stimulus debate will bring challenges for him as the Whip and for Republicans, but he — along with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — have been working overtime to keep their Conference unified. And while he’s optimistic that GOP Senators ultimately will stick together and force Democrats to follow through on a strategy of amending the House package piecemeal, that outcome didn’t appear to be possible when the Senate measure first cleared the Finance panel.

“When it started out, at first, it appeared a bridge too far,” Kyl argued. “Had it not been for Mitch McConnell’s leadership, it would not have happened.”

Indeed, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) already has laid out his strategy for this week’s stimulus debate, one that hedges its bets against a filibuster of the Senate Finance plan. A series of votes have been planned to ensure that some Democratic proposals — like rebates for seniors and veterans — are ultimately approved.

As a Democratic leadership aide noted, “the stakes for both sides are high. There are significant differences between the parties about how to improve this bill, and it’s going to be very close.”

Like Republicans, Democrats are keeping the pressure on, especially on incumbent Republican Senators who face tough re-elections at home. But Democrats recognize the realities of their 51-seat advantage in a chamber that requires 60 votes to advance their agenda.

“We have a very narrow majority and we only picked up three Republican votes on the Finance Committee,” the aide said. “We’re not here to engage in pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. We made a decision of whether to accept the House bill or fight to improve it and we chose to improve it.”

However the week plays out, Kyl said, he believes he already has been through his first critical Whip test of 2008 by helping unite Senate Republicans last month to defeat a Democratic version of the terrorist surveillance bill.

Republicans have largely stuck together to ensure that any reauthorization of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act include immunity for telecommunications companies who aided in domestic wiretapping in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. FISA is likely to come up again this week as Republicans and Democrats try to broker a compromise.

Kyl said he doesn’t believe there’s a blueprint for the Whip post, saying “every vote is different and it’s a different dynamic each time.” But he believes — just like under Lott — that Republicans “see the advantages of sticking together.”

“So far we’ve been able to stick together as a team,” Kyl said.

As one senior Republican said, Kyl seems to be following Lott’s methodology when it comes to the Whip job — trying to develop a strategy that puts the party in the best position to advance its ideas and prove itself as a “robust minority.”

“He’s picking up where Lott left off,” noted the senior Senate Republican staffer.

For sure, Kyl has earned his stripes among his 48 GOP colleagues, who easily elected him to succeed Lott when the former Whip and Majority Leader abruptly resigned last year. Kyl had been the GOP policy chairman and Conference chairman before moving up the ladder to become the Whip, the No. 2 Republican leadership job.

To Kyl, Lott’s shoes are impossible to fill. “Trent was the best,” he said Friday. “It is very hard for anyone to be as good a Whip. He was as good a Whip as anyone.”

Certainly, Kyl has his work cut out for him after Lott managed last year to successfully stop Senate Democrats from numerous attempts to withdraw troops from Iraq, and along with McConnell and President Bush’s powerful veto, to block Democratic versions of energy, spending and tax plans.

As one Republican Senate aide said: “The truth is we wound up ending last year on a high note. … The Democrats basically passed our agenda at the end of last year. We’re looking to bootstrap off that success as we begin this year.”

Those who know Kyl say the Arizona Republican doesn’t take any task lightly, least of all his leadership posts. They note that he also defied expectations as the GOP Conference chairman when he demonstrated that he could shed his wariness of the media to take on the job as the party’s lead messenger.

“He has to give it 100 percent,” said a senior Republican leadership aide.