GOP Senate Whip Operation Shifts Right but Signals Push to Middle

Posted January 17, 2009 at 4:41pm

As Senate Republican leaders try to find middle ground with the incoming Obama administration, Minority Whip Jon Kyl’s (R-Ariz.) decision to stack his Whip team with conservatives could help in keeping an often fractured Conference together as they move toward the center.

Kyl last week announced that he was tapping Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) as his Chief Deputy Whip. Although Burr, a rising star in the GOP ranks, is a staunch conservative, he also has worked to strike deals within a sometimes ideologically diverse minority.

Although Kyl also decided to retain Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) as a Deputy Whip, she is the only one of the GOP’s dwindling number of moderates on the team. The rest of his Whip operation is made up of conservative Sens. Mike Crapo (Idaho), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.), John Barrasso (Wyo.) and David Vitter (La.).

“I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the whip team I’ve assembled. Not only do the members represent the diversity within the Republican Conference, but each brings critical skills that will help our leadership develop the successful strategies needed for the session ahead. I’m also excited to put Senator Burr’s outstanding leadership skills to work as Chief Deputy Whip,” Kyl said in a statement.

By naming so many right-leaning Senators to the team, Kyl could be well-positioned to avoid the kind of in-fighting that sometimes plagued his Conference during the 110th Congress.

Starting with the immigration reform fight in 2007, Republicans regularly found themselves deeply divided on major policy issues. Conservatives broke from their leadership during that debate, rejecting a Bush administration proposal that had buy-in from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), former Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Kyl.

Conservatives, led by Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), also repeatedly clashed with GOP leaders in the last Congress on spending issues and earmark reform. Several of Kyl’s 111th Congressional deputies – most notably Sessions and Vitter – have been reliable allies for Coburn and DeMint in the past.

Kyl’s decision to bring conservatives into the leadership fold in some ways mirrors Lott’s strategy during his time as Whip, when he named leading moderates like Snowe as his deputies as a way to keep the swing Members in the GOP fold. Lott believed that by assembling a team of diverse minds, he could best keep the party together on key votes, particularly on key procedural votes.