Republicans return to the Senate next week to face a difficult slate of issues, chief among them what to do about Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), whose seven-count federal conviction has made him an unwanted reminder of the GOPs recent ethical woes.
Republicans will also have to address a suite of changes to their internal party rules proposed by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) that are designed to limit the power of entrenched Old Bulls with years of seniority, as well as a vote on a new National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman.
But what to do about Stevens, the longest-serving Republican Senator, will be job No. 1 in the minds of most Republicans, aides said.
Although Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will wait until he has a chance to confer with his colleagues, there appears to be a growing sense among GOP Senators that the Conference must take steps to distance itself from Stevens, possibly including stripping him of his committee assignments and expelling him from the Conference itself.
DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton on Friday argued that Republicans need to act proactively with Stevens and that it is incumbent on leadership to cut ties with the embattled lawmaker.
The GOP leadership should be the first to act on this by expelling him from the Republican Conference and not assigning him any committee seats. We should clean our own house, Denton said.
While most Republicans privately agreed that some steps should be taken, many remain hopeful that either Democratic Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich will be named the winner of the Senate election in Alaska before the Conference meets next week or Stevens will be named the victor and will promptly retire from the Senate.
That would be the best possible outcome, one GOP aide said, noting that Senators are not likely to wait for the appeals process before moving forward with efforts to expel Stevens.
Republicans could also vote next week on their new NRSC chairman. Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and Norm Coleman (Minn.) are both interested in the job. But Cornyn has suspended campaigning for the time being while state officials conduct a recount in Colemans race against Democratic challenger Al Franken.
Beyond the Stevens dilemma and NRSC vote, Republicans will also have to vote on a number of internal Conference reforms proposed by DeMint.
According to aides, DeMint today will circulate the set of eight reforms to Conference rules. Under the proposal, Republican members of the Appropriations Committee would be limited to a six-year term on the committee, although those currently on the committee who have already reached that limit would be given an additional two years to serve.
Similarly, DeMint is proposing a six-year limit on the tenure of the Republican leader, and when applicable, the President Pro Tem. DeMints proposal would not count McConnells four years as leader of the Republican Conference against him.
Additionally, DeMint is seeking to eliminate the use of seniority in selecting committee chairmen or ranking members, aides said, explaining that DeMints proposals would make the selection process a merit-based system, as well as a change in the secret ballot voting system the Conference uses.
One aide said: Its kind of been a card-check kind of situation where a chairman goes up to someone and says, Heres your secret ballot. Can you fill it out and give it back to me?
Under DeMints proposed reforms, the office of the Republican secretary would be responsible for conducting elections.
Other proposed changes include: shifting the hiring of subcommittee staff from the chairman or ranking member of the full committees to the top Republican on each subcommittee; eliminating the ability of chairmen or ranking members to serve as the chairmen or ranking members of Appropriations subcommittees; and a change to how megabills are hotlined, requiring lawmakers to actively agree to a unanimous consent deal. Currently, Senators are considered to have agreed to a UC unless they respond to a hotline announcement on a bill.
Senior GOP aides said a number of the proposals most notably the leadership term limits and changes to the weight of seniority in choosing chairmen and ranking members are likely dead on arrival, but several reforms could attract support. One aide noted that the limits on serving on the Appropriations Committee could draw support from rank-and-file Members since everyone wants to be an appropriator.