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A Senate Freedom Caucus? No Need

By Matthew Fleming, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The House Freedom Caucus has shown conservatives the far right can have an impact on the legislative process. But don’t expect a similar group to spring up in the Senate; they already have one. Sort of.

It’s not that senators are less conservative — Republicans such as Ted Cruz of Texas, Jim Risch of Idaho or Jeff Sessions of Alabama would attest to that. And it’s not that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is so much better liked than his former counterpart who was chased into retirement by the Freedom Caucus, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.

Perhaps the main reason a Freedom Caucus is less likely in the Senate is attributable to the institution itself: Senators need to work together to get things done, but unlike House lawmakers, senators don’t need a coalition to block things. If a key power of the Freedom Caucus is veto power over legislation, senators can erect procedural hurdles on their own.

But the other, less recognized reason conservative senators are unlikely to form a Freedom Caucus-like group is because the Senate Republican Steering Committee already performs some of its functions.

“It’s an important part of the process, at least it’s been important to me,” said the committee’s chairman, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. “It’s been a means by which we can help empower individual senators.”

Unlike the House Steering Committees, which doles out committee assignments, the Senate Steering Committee has no such official function. Its most visible manifestation is its popular Wednesday lunch, which is open to the conference and has been a staple of Senate life since 1974.

Like the Freedom Caucus, the Steering Committee is not an official committee, and membership is loosely defined. In fact — and this may sound familiar — no official roster is ever made public.

While an official count of the group is kept under wraps, there are about a dozen “executive committee members” who pay mandatory dues to fund staff for the organization; other senators make voluntary contributions for access to committee services.

Twenty-six senators, including McConnell, made salary contributions this year to the committee’s executive director, James Wallner, according to LegiStorm. Around a dozen of those made higher contributions and are assumed to be executive committee members — the members who direct discussion and select the chairman. Roll Call confirmed the following executive committee members: Marco Rubio of Florida, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, David Vitter of Louisiana, Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and Cruz and Sessions.

Lee told Roll Call the staff keeps an eye on unanimous consent requests and makes sure members of the group know “their procedural options, their procedural rights.”

As chairman, Lee also attends Republican leadership meetings, even though he’s not a member of GOP leadership. One member of leadership, Cornyn, has been on the executive committee for years, he said, and together with Lee, both help keep an open dialogue between the committee and leadership. In addition, other leaders attend the Wednesday lunch.

“I think part of the idea was that talking to each other was important because a lot of misunderstandings occur because of a lack of communication — and people start thinking in conspiratorial terms and the like,” Cornyn said of the relationship between Steering and leadership. “I think it’s actually been very constructive.”

“We’re in different roles,” Lee said of leadership. “I don’t have their role and they don’t have mine.”

Lee said his role involves asking a lot of questions. “Asking the right questions so that our members are informed of the process, of where it’s going, of how we might be able to improve a particular legislative proposal, or identifying legislation that we either support or oppose,” he said.

Unlike the Republican Study Committee and the Freedom Caucus, the Senate Republican Steering Committee doesn’t write legislation or take official positions. It primarily focuses on floor tactics and keeping members apprised of conservative positions.

“Our members make up their own mind and there’s no pressure if there’s a disagreement or somebody does it a different way,” said Sessions, a former chairman. “It’s a nice fellowship and a nice opportunity to discuss possible strategies and sometimes help each other advance a common goal.”

Sen. John McCain said that while he attends the weekly lunch, he’s never found it necessary to join because he is confident his own relationships among his fellow Republicans are good. And the Arizona Republican doesn’t see the committee and leadership as adversaries.

“I think that they have an impact and a more conservative voice is heard and considered, but I’ve never contemplated or heard of the Steering Committee basically openly confronting the leadership,” McCain said. “It’s been a much more collaborative effort.”

It hasn’t always been defined by good relations. In 2007, then-Minority Whip Trent Lott quit the committee in a dust-up over legislative tactics with then-Sen. Jim DeMint and his aides.

In July, leadership was angered when a staffer solicited outside groups like the Heritage Foundation to support a procedural move by Lee targeting the Affordable Care Act.

While dismantling the law is a GOP priority, many senators feared Lee’s move to lower procedural thresholds undermined Senate traditions. Afterward, Lee denied knowledge of the staffer’s intentions and apologized to leadership.

Sen. Deb Fischer stepped down from the executive committee around that time, but the Nebraska Republican told Roll Call the reason was “budgetary” and had nothing to do with the staffer incident.

Recently, Lee claimed a committee victory when he, Cruz and Rubio pushed for the budget reconciliation process to target Obamacare. That was a notable exception to claiming publicity. Many committee actions are holds on legislation that the chairman does on behalf of members.

Risch wouldn’t directly confirm he was an executive committee member but said his contribution to shared staff salary would suggest he was, said that will both Senate Steering and the House Freedom Caucus were private, the Senate panel tended to be more guarded.

The Idaho Republican said his impression was that the Freedom Caucus “attempts to go in a different direction than where leadership is trying to take the caucus.” In contrast, Risch said he wants to work with his conference’s leadership to tug legislation to the right, conceding there’s usually more votes in the middle.

©2015 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo:  (L-R) Republican Senate leaders Tom Barrasso (R-WY), John Thune (R-SD), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and John Cornyn (R-TX) hold a news conference on budget negotiations on Capitol Hill in Washington December 15, 2015.     REUTERS/Gary Cameron  

 

Drowning In Weak Polling, How Long Can Lindsey Graham Stay In 2016 Race?

By Matthew Fleming, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Lindsey Graham’s presidential campaign has had a tough time getting traction so far, and a new Quinnipiac University poll keeps him in the conversation about who might be the first of the 17 Republican presidential candidates to fold.

But do his low poll numbers suggest the end is near?

The poll released Thursday showed nothing new: The South Carolina Republican has been unable to differentiate himself from other candidates in any way. But the national poll — which says that 13 percent of Republican or leans-Republican voters said they’d never vote for him and zero percent said they would vote for him — shows that things are not improving.

Even “someone else” polled at 1 percent (cue the joke about how hard it would be to find someone else who isn’t already in the race). The highest Graham polled nationally was at 2 percent, according to Real Clear Politics.

In Graham’s home state, he’s polling at 5 percent, and in New Hampshire, where he hoped to get a bump from the prior success of his buddy, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Graham is polling only at 1 percent, according to Real Clear Politics averages.

And his campaign, centered on hawkish defense positions, has now largely devolved into a sideshow of Graham vs. GOP front-runner Donald Trump.

A few days ago on CNN, the South Carolina Republican said about the current GOP front-runner Trump: “Come to South Carolina and I’ll beat his brains out.” But Trump’s 26-point advantage there would suggest otherwise.

So why hasn’t Graham dropped out? His campaign argues that polling this early could be unreliable.

“Polling taken this early rarely reflects the final outcome of the election,” Graham spokeswoman Brittany Bramell said in a statement. “Senator Graham is focused on outlining real solutions to the issues facing voters and describing how to best secure our nation against radical Islamic terrorism, not polls.”

Another explanation is that the benefits outweigh the cost, as long as there’s still money in the campaign coffers.

“I don’t see any reason, if you have some resources, not to stay in the race and hope that at least there will be some debates where you can get your message across or other venues where you can make that happen,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a political scientist with the American Enterprise Institute. “You have nothing to lose.”

Graham has always been a frequent guest on talk shows, but nothing can compete with the exposure provided by a presidential campaign, particularly if someone has views they want to share.

“When you are an announced candidate for president, you hope that you’re going to get on the debate stages so you can make your points,” said Ornstein.

But that’s a chicken-or-the-egg problem for Graham. Without improved polling, he won’t be able to get a seat, or lectern, at the top-tier debates. But without the exposure that comes from those events, his polling is unlikely to improve.

Graham’s two main points are his aggressive foreign policy views — such as supporting heavy deployment of troops in the Middle East and a bitter disdain for the Iran nuclear deal before Congress at the moment — and a desire to lead on other issues, like climate change and immigration.

“If he had that debate stage, you would see a Lindsey Graham who would not be calculating what he could do to win more primary voters, but basically, as he would see it, speaking truth to power,” Ornstein said. “And that could be on issues like immigration and climate change.

Trump’s unexpected dominance of the primary field so far has left other candidates with little room to do anything but chase and react. But of the 2016 Republican candidates, Graham has become one of the most vocal foes of Trump, who many see as negative for the Republican Party in general due to his controversial views and or comments on immigration and women.

“He’s just trying to punch through, which any candidate would try to do in his position,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who served as spokesman for both a former speaker of the House and Senate majority leader. “He does get some media attention. What he needs is consistency in that attention, over time, and that’s what Trump is preventing from happening.”

Ornstein predicts that Graham will stay through at least the first few primaries. There’s the possibility that poor performances in South Carolina could “damage” his standing back in Washington.

But excluding that, there’s probably little to lose in an election season that has upended conventional wisdom at every turn.

“The more candidates there are, the less reason you have as an individual to drop out,” Ornstein said. “You can imagine mainstream candidates splitting up a bunch of votes where you could gain some traction. Maybe you get some delegates. Maybe you have some role at a convention. I think the usual winnowing out process doesn’t necessarily work this time, at least work in the same way.”

Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham participates in the Voters First Presidential Forum in Manchester, New Hampshire August 3, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Senate Waste Watchers Soldier On

By Matthew Fleming, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — A dog-bite prevention website. Vermont puppet shows. Researching the bomb-sniffing capabilities of elephants.

Those are just some government spending projects labeled “wasteful” in this Congress by a crop of lawmakers who continue to take on the mantle of pork busters four years after Ohio Republican John A. Boehner banned earmarks after he took the speaker’s gavel in 2011.

Former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) long the standard bearer of the waste-watching movement, told CQ Roll Call that despite the moratorium on traditional earmarks, billions are still spent on duplicative programs — what he considers the largest earmark.

“It’s great to bring it up and raise the issue, but if the issue is raised and nobody eliminates the problem that’s creating the waste, you haven’t done anything,” Coburn said. He’s now working to organize a convention of states to restrict the power of the federal government and is considering continuing his spending reports from outside the Capitol. “We’re talking about symptoms, but we’re not fixing the disease.”

There are four Republican waste watchers in the Senate carrying the torch and making Coburn “proud” these days: Arizona’s Jeff Flake and John McCain, Dan Coats of Indiana and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Waste-report season is now in full bloom. Coats last week spoke on suspicious spending by defense contractors, while Flake released a dinosaur-themed report featuring legacy earmarks he dubbed “Jurassic Pork.”

For effect, Flake swept through the Senate Press Galleries distributing pork sandwiches to reporters. (He graciously offered chicken to those with an aversion to pork.) In May, McCain, Flake and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania appeared with “Pigfoot,” the mascot of Citizens Against Government Waste, to highlight their annual “Pig Book.”

This week, Paul took the role of Senate sommelier by highlighting grants for the Washington state wine industry, asking the question: What wine pairing goes best with waste?

And for the piscivore palate left unsatisfied by a diet of only wine and waste, McCain served the main course last month when he fought in vain to end a catfish-inspection program as an amendment to a trade bill.

(c)2015 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Fall Of Ramadi Prompts New Questions About Obama’s Strategy Against Islamic State

By Matthew Fleming, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle called for action from the White House after the Islamic State terror group’s victory in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province.

While White House press secretary Josh Earnest insisted Tuesday that President Barack Obama’s leave-the-ground-fighting-to-locals strategy has been a success “overall,” he hinted there could be tweaks after Ramadi.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, ramped up their concerns about how the war they have yet to explicitly authorize is going.

“Alarm bells should be going off” about the White House’s strategy, said Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat of the House Select Intelligence Committee.

Unsurprisingly, Republican hawks such as Senator John McCain of Arizona and likely presidential candidate Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are torching the president’s handling of the war, with Graham on Monday calling for Obama to send 10,000 troops to help fight the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, and McCain agreeing with his buddy.

McCain called Obama’s decision to withdraw troops years ago “shameful” and said it was the cause of today’s troubles.

“Ramadi fell because of the president’s failure to leave a residual force behind, which is one of the most shameful acts in recent history,” said McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said to reverse ISIL’s gains, “that means more of most everything: more boots on the ground, more forward air controllers, more training, more equipping.”

McCain said Obama didn’t have a strategy to win in Iraq and Syria.

“What’s even more disgraceful is they’re basically papering over what is a significant and impactful loss of the capital of the Anbar province,” McCain said. “Now if it’s Shiite militias that come in, it’ll permanently estrange the Sunni population from Baghdad.”

But more boots on the ground would face certain resistance in Obama’s own party.

Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), entirely dismissed the idea.

“On the ground? U.S. (troops)?” asked Cardin, who is the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “No. That’s an easy no.”

Cardin said the fall of Ramadi is a “major concern,” and said the president needed to work very closely with the Iraqis, to manage the Sunni/Shiite conflict.

“It’s a sensitive issue between the Sunnis and the Shiites,” Cardin said. “You’ve got to have confidence among the Sunnis that they can maintain control of their own areas.”

Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), declined to offer suggestions to Obama, including whether to commit more troops. But Corker, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, said the fall of Ramadi is evidence the Islamic State group is more of a factor in Iraq than previously thought.

“It’s very disappointing,” Corker said of the Ramadi situation. “I was there not long ago and I know that the discussions at that moment were about Mosul, which is a much bigger undertaking. And I think it calls into question, a big question, whether there are the resources there to deal with what needs to be dealt with in Mosul.”

Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), said the Ramadi situation was a “disgrace,” but was also hesitant to urge more troops on the ground, and he said the U.S. needed a clear strategy first. But he said airstrikes alone were not working.

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Last week, reporters asked many of the candidates for president whether they thought going into Iraq initially was a mistake. But Cornyn suggested that question was the wrong one.

“People are asking the candidates for president if it was a mistake to go into Iraq, but they should be asking the president of the United States, ‘Why did you pull the plug on Iraq and squander the money and the lives of the people who fought to give the people of Iraq a chance?’ ” Cornyn said.

But not everyone was convinced that Obama was taking the wrong approach. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said ISIL is constantly looking for areas to counterattack, “to disrupt momentum and to get headlines.”

Reed said while these types of events will be “constant over the next several months,” the White House should stick to its approach and not add troops on the ground.

“We should be committed to building up adequate Iraqi forces on the ground using air power we have,” Reed said.

Earlier Tuesday, on the other side of the Capitol, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH), said the president should start over with a new strategy and a new proposal for an Authorization to Use Military Force to take on the terror group. Earnest dismissed that, saying that Boehner, as well as other lawmakers in both parties, had been “AWOL” on an AUMF against the Islamic State. He said Boehner has given “excuse after excuse” instead of doing his job and considering the AUMF.

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), agreed with Earnest.

“After ten months of the House avoiding the responsibility to even have any meaningful debate on the current war on (ISIS), the speaker’s plea for the president to submit a new authorization is clearly an admission that the House cannot initiate discussion of an issue of this magnitude,” Kaine said in a statement.

He suggested the Senate take it up instead.

Photo: DVIDSHUB via Flickr