Minority to Plan a New Road Map

Posted January 6, 2009 at 6:45pm

Senate Republicans will meet behind closed doors today to discuss how to begin the process of moving their party forward after a second straight devastating electoral cycle, a session veteran Members hope will lead to a more focused, and sober, Senate Republican Conference.

In the wake of November’s elections, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), newly installed National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) have been calling for their party to begin pursuing new policies and positions that, while based on traditional conservative principles, reflect the changing economic and social world.

As part of that effort, leadership has designed a retreat heavy on economic issues, with panels on “Stimulus, Taxes, Spending and Debt,” “Protecting the Family Budget,” the “Auto Debate” and “Protecting Workers’ Rights to a Secret Ballot in Union Elections,” according to a copy of the agenda.

“There will be more focus than ever before on the sort of principles and solutions that address the biggest problems facing the country — especially the economic concerns of the American people,” GOP Conference Communications Director Ryan Loskarn said.

The retreat also will feature a lengthy dissection of the 2008 elections, and sources said Members will be presented with detailed polling data on the outcomes as well as on how the party can begin to move forward on crafting a winning message.

Senators also will participate in a session titled “Protecting Your Constituents Right to be Heard,” according to the agenda. Sources familiar with the retreat said the session is designed to help Members talk less about “process issues” — such as how a lack of amendments is an abrogation of their rights as the minority — and more about how those issues affect average Americans.

Since falling into the minority in 2006, Senate Republicans have repeatedly complained about how Democrats have governed the chamber — a habit that outside consultants and many party operatives have cautioned against. Those operatives argue Republicans need to focus less on the process, and more on the politics — or risk losing the attention and support of the average American.

While much of today’s annual Conference retreat at the Library of Congress will focus on where Republicans go from here, lawmakers also hope the session will act as a call for their colleagues to not make the same mistakes that led to the loss of a host of longtime colleagues in 2008.

“We need to be more unified, more disciplined … and, hopefully, that will come out of the Conference retreat,” one GOP lawmaker said. This Senator explained that unlike in 2006, when Republicans decamped to the Library of Congress following a difficult electoral defeat, the GOP Conference’s numbers have been so diminished they must take the situation more seriously. Senate Republicans now count themselves at 41, with chances ever narrowing of holding on to incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who is contesting the results of his electoral loss.

In 2007 and again in 2008, then-National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) warned that lawmakers needed to take the looming elections much more seriously. And while many, particularly incumbents, ultimately heeded his call, his tenure was marred by constant difficulties in raising funds from his colleagues.

Also, the GOP Conference was often plagued with infighting on a number of top issues, most notably immigration reform, where Republican conservatives openly revolted against their leadership and ultimately scuttled a massive reform bill backed by President George W. Bush.

“With 49 members [in 2006], we were a force to be reckoned with. … We don’t have that luxury anymore. There is no margin for error,” the lawmaker said.

“Clearly we can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome,” Cornyn said, adding that he will use the meeting to discuss the basic nuts and bolts of reshaping the GOP’s political apparatus to “get people ready to run in 2010 and to recruit qualified candidates.”

On a day-to-day level, Cornyn said he hopes the Conference will help members begin moving toward a more cooperative model than was employed in the 110th Congress, when Republicans had sufficient numbers to aggressively filibuster nearly every measure Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) brought to the floor. “We need to figure out when we need to fight and when we need to work together,” Cornyn said.