Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune of South Dakota, who passed on a presidential run this year, said on Tuesday that he will run for Senate Republican Conference chairman next year. Thune moved after Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he will step down from that leadership spot in January.
Thune’s run for conference chairman opens the post of Republican Policy Committee chairman. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., currently vice conference chairman, announced on Tuesday that he will run for RPC chair. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., just nine months into his first stint in public office, announced he will seek the vice chairman spot that Barrasso is vacating.
In a floor speech, Alexander said critics who fault the Senate for excessive partisanship overlook the bare-knuckled history of U.S. politics. But his speech and a letter to colleagues on the decision nevertheless amounted to an implicit criticism of the current functioning of a chamber where any bipartisan deal is viewed suspiciously by factions on both sides. It is the latest in a series of such statements by longtime Senate members. However, Alexander said he will seek reelection in 2014.
News that Alexander, the third-ranking Senate Republican, was stepping aside rippled through the Senate GOP leadership. Following unsuccessful bids to become whip— the chief vote counter and second in command—Alexander was going to try again in 2013. Minority Whip Jon Kyl’s planned retirement leaves a leadership opening. Alexander would have faced an uphill fight against National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas, who is in the race and looks likely to be coming off two straight successful cycles. That would leave a large group of GOP senators whom Cornyn helped elect.
Cornyn now appears likely to cruise into a post that would position him to eventually attempt to succeed Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky as GOP leader.
“Cornyn is due,” said one Republican leadership aide. “He is owed. He is about to hand McConnell the majority on a silver platter.”
Thune did not rule out a bid for whip in 2013, but that step appears unlikely barring a serious electoral setback for Senate Republicans next year. Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., who previously said he would seek Alexander’s position, said through an aide that he will instead back Thune.
Johanns’s previous announcement was made “with the understanding that Senator Thune would run for president,” the aide said, noting that Johanns is still open to seeking another leadership post.
Alexander, an appropriator who has crossed the aisle more often than his fellow GOP leaders, criticized both parties’ tendency of viewing any legislative success by the other as a defeat.
He said ending his four years as conference chairman, where he focused on party messaging and politics, frees him "to spend more time working for results” and lets him operate “with an independent attitude.”
"I want to do more to make the Senate a more effective institution so that it can deal better with serious issues," Alexander said in a colleague letter.
He did not specify how he would work to improve the Senate, although he remains the ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee, a job through which he worked with Democrats to curtail some Senate stalling tactics this year.
This article appears in the September 20, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.