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Governing Could Be Hard for a GOP-Led Senate

Richard Mourdock hasn’t even been elected to the Senate and he’s already calling for its leadership to be more conservative. But if Republicans regain control of the chamber on the back of the tea party, it could make the job of governing nearly impossible for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The appeal from the Indiana Republican — fresh off his primary victory over six-term Sen. Dick Lugar — is not new. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has been trying for years to force his Conference to the right. But if Republicans succeed in switching McConnell’s title from Minority Leader to Majority Leader, the caucus will likely be torn between tea party demands to eschew compromise and the need to govern with the help of Democrats.

After all, McConnell’s majority — if he wins one — is not expected to be a
filibuster-proof 60 votes. The GOP needs to net four seats to win a 51-vote majority, and many political prognosticators don’t believe they can snag more than six.

So Mourdock and DeMint’s insistence on “changing leadership” in the party raises the question of how McConnell will navigate a more conservative caucus without encountering the same pitfalls and policy failures that have plagued Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) this Congress. 

“Our leadership can only go as far as their Conference will let them go. And I think if we have a conservative and committed caucus, then I think our leadership can move us in that direction,” DeMint said Wednesday. “But as long as we’re divided, as long as some keep wanting to bring back earmarks and some don’t, it’s very hard for our leadership to lead.”

The reality, however, is that those divisions are likely to continue to exist, regardless of who controls the Senate or even the White House. Even the most conservative veteran lawmakers differ in approach from their tea party freshman counterparts. 

It will be McConnell’s job to show attentiveness to the conservative cause while also keeping his Conference under control.

“McConnell is a very good Minority Leader. He knows how this place functions … [but] his biggest strength is his ability to make sure Republicans don’t shoot themselves in the foot, and that would come in handy as Majority Leader,” one Republican aide said.

The aide suggested that the best way to avoid internal conflict likely would be to avoid taking on “big, bold initiatives” and to focus instead on smaller bills that not only could bring on Democratic support but also would not divide the Republican Conference from inside. It’s a strategy that Democrats and the White House have been trying to employ this year to secure GOP support for their initiatives.

“On big issues, you can’t bring DeMint and [Sen.] Susan Collins on the same page unless that page is a ‘no,’” the aide said.

Multiple sources conceded that McConnell’s work would be more difficult if the Republicans take the majority and even worse if they do so under President Mitt Romney, who is the presumptive GOP nominee.

Obama’s presence in the White House would pressure Hill Democrats to work with Republicans, especially on issues such as raising the debt ceiling or extending the Bush-era tax cuts at least in part. If the GOP controls both branches of government, then there is more incentive for Democrats to become the new party of “no,” despite years of railing against the GOP for holding that title.

Of course, no one is suggesting that “changing leadership” means ousting
McConnell, although some had interpreted Mourdock’s comments that way.
Mourdock clarified his position Tuesday saying, “We can certainly change the leadership but not necessarily the people.”

Even the most serious challenges to McConnell’s leadership have fizzled out. A Wall Street Journal op-ed penned by DeMint last Election Day, for example, did not seem to move the freshman class to revolt. And McConnell has proved time and again he is not one to be trifled with.

On one occasion, a Republican Senator made comments about McConnell on Fox News that the Minority Leader deemed unflattering. McConnell printed out a transcript, highlighted the offending remarks and handed the papers to that Member on the Senate floor. It was a tacit but stern warning.

Sources also said McConnell is an expert in keeping his friends close and his enemies closer. They predicted that he’d give enough room to committees to make people feel productive but not so much that he wouldn’t have control over their final products — a problem encountered frequently in this Congress by Boehner.

But, despite the buzz surrounding Lugar’s defeat and the death of pragmatic Republicanism, Senators still in Washington, D.C., are standing behind their conservative credentials.

“I have a very conservative voting record,” said Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), a member of the GOP leadership team. Barrasso said he doesn’t see a problem with the tea party and the more establishment factions of the Conference jibing.

“We continue to look for ways, to find things in which we agree, and advance those things,” Barrasso said. 

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) issued a bit more critical take.

“It could be more sensitive to the mood of the country and the direction we’re going,” Sessions said when asked whether leadership is attentive enough to its conservative Members. “When you have somebody of the quality of Dick Lugar losing, I think it indicates that people are not happy with Washington. Nobody disliked Sen. Lugar — everybody knew he was competent — but there is a sense that we’re not moving enough to address the American people’s concerns … and all of us need to be alert.”

John Stanton contributed to this report.

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