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Will freshmen crash Senate Republicans' party?

Some potential new members of the Senate are promising to upset the status quo — but former and current GOP aides aren't expecting an earthquake.
Image: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell ,
Republican aides say they're confident that confident that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will deftly handle the new conservative arrivals in the upper chamber by incorporating them — and their ideas — into the larger caucus.MANDEL NGAN / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

Insurgent Republican candidates hoping to win election to the United States Senate have made one thing clear: They are not coming to Washington to make friends.

Tea Party-backed contender Ken Buck in Colorado has promised that “the freshman class will challenge the status quo in the Republican conference.” In a secretly recorded phone conversation with a third-party candidate, Nevada’s Sharron Angle slammed the GOP “machine” for having “lost their principle.” During his primary contest, Senate hopeful Rand Paul hedged on whether or not he’d support fellow Kentuckian Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (a statement he has since reversed.) “I want people to know that I'm a distinct person,” he said at the time.

But, while these potential new members of the Senate defeated establishment-favored GOP contenders in their states’ primaries by promising to upset the status quo in Washington, former and current Republican aides aren’t expecting a political earthquake. They say they’re confident that McConnell will deftly handle the new conservative arrivals by incorporating them — and their ideas — into the larger caucus.

“Senator McConnell will move quickly to include them,” said a GOP strategist who is close to the Republican leader. “The worst thing you can do to somebody who's got a lot of energy and a lot of ideas is to wall them off and not let them be expressed.”

Key to McConnell’s success, added a former GOP leadership aide, will be to harness and channel the Tea Party agenda “in a way that’s productive rather than destructive or harmful to Senate Republicans or the country in general.”

Both Republicans spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the uncertainty of the coming election.

Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said the minority leader welcomes the idea of an expanded Republican caucus.

“Senator McConnell often says that if having more conservative members in the Senate is a ‘problem,’ it’s a ‘problem’ he wants to have,” Stewart said.

McConnell's strategy could include offering new members coveted slots on committees that serve their constituents’ interests, Republicans said. GOP leaders could also encourage new members to take a leading role in introducing legislation that addresses one of their campaign agenda items, but in a more scaled-back way.

For example, instead of trying to pass a bill that would eliminate the Department of Education — a much-discussed ideal in Tea Party circles but an almost impossibly unpopular one in practice — old hands in the Senate could help the newcomers draft legislation that makes dramatic reductions to its programs, something that might attract conservative Democratic support. 

“You have to go out of your way to assimilate people and give them roles,” the GOP strategist said.

While integration doesn’t necessarily equate with unification among Senate Republicans, GOP sources believe McConnell will try to distill one simple theme for the new members as they bring their campaign promises into his governing body:  Don’t do anything that will divide Republicans and unite Democrats.

“McConnell’s been very effective at keeping folks together,” the former leadership aide said.

The Republican leader’s ability to maintain a unified front has been in part a result of Senate Republicans’ current hierarchy in Washington.  Because Democrats currently hold the House, Senate, and White House, Senate Republicans have provided the GOP with its last and strongest defense in filibustering, stalling or amending the Democratic agenda.

Currently, most pollsters and pundits agree that the odds are long that Republicans will net the 10 Senate seats required to hand them the majority in the upper chamber. But if they do win the Senate back, all bets are off.

“The dynamic changes considerably” if Republicans win back the majority, the former aide warned.

Other GOP sources echoed the same concern, saying that McConnell would face similar challenges as those on display within the current Democratic conference, in which Majority Leader Harry Reid routinely struggles to hold the factions of his party together while trying to move major legislation.

More of the same?
Most of the GOP insiders feel that, when all the votes are tallied, the Senate Republican conference will generally look the same in the next Congress as it does now – just larger. The caucus will likely contain a small bloc of Tea Party-inspired conservatives, a small moderate bloc, and a large bloc of more traditional Republicans who typically align with leadership.

“The proportions don’t change,” the GOP strategist said. “The size simply gets bigger.”

Of potential new Republican members who are currently within striking distance of their Democratic opponents, only Angle and Alaska’s Joe Miller were mentioned as potential challenges for the leadership by GOP sources.  They believe others like Buck, Washington’s Dino Rossi, and Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson would face challenges of their own because of the strong Democratic constituencies in their home states.

New conservative members may disagree on the scope of some major Republican policy goals, but their ultimate objectives will still be aligned with those of their caucus leaders. Whether a floor vote aims to repeal parts or all of the new health care law, to extend the Bush tax cuts, or to cut spending, “they’ll vote with McConnell,” the GOP strategist said.

"The fact is that Republicans will continue to unite behind the common goals of reducing spending, slowing the growth of government and repealing and replacing the health spending bill," said Stewart, McConnell's spokesman.

But not everyone expects a perfectly smooth transition.

Marty Paone worked as his party’s Democratic Secretary — one of the most powerful non-elected staff positions on Capitol Hill – for 13 years.  He said that McConnell will have to deal with each member on a case-by-case, issue-by-issue basis.

“The leadership can’t really tell them what they can and can’t do,” he said. “Once [they’re] elected, they’re all 100 independent contractors.”

One particular area of contention could be the reform of earmarking, the process by which members use legislation to seek funding for special home state projects. While most Tea Party candidates support banning the practice, recent attempts to curb it have split Republicans. A proposed moratorium on earmarks in 2010 failed, with 15 Republicans joining most Democrats to vote against the ban.

“I think that could lead to a fairly messy situation on the floor,” when spending bills come up for votes, said the former GOP leadership aide.

Role models
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has served as a kingmaker for many of the primary cycle's Tea Party-backed candidates, offering his coveted endorsement and doling out funds from his political action committee.

DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund has given heavily to candidates like Buck, Angle, and Delaware long shot candidate Christine O’Donnell. According to the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, the group has spent at least $1.6 million to date on independent expenditures – almost exclusively for candidates who took on GOP establishment candidates in Republican primaries earlier this year.

But some Senate GOP insiders balk at the idea that the South Carolina Republican might serve as a mentor for the GOP candidates who win in November.

Leadership aides instead say that they prefer the new members look to another conservative, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, as their role model for how to conduct themselves in the Senate.

While going out of their way to point out that DeMint has consistently and earnestly challenged the Democratic agenda, these GOP sources suggest that DeMint isn’t as effective or pragmatic in executing his strategy, even being so zealous that he sometimes has undermined Republican leaders' own efforts to thwart Democrats.

Some Republicans point to a singular event in 2008 as a moment when DeMint began to lose credibility within his own caucus.  During a debate to reauthorize the Bush administration’s AIDS program, DeMint forced Democrats into a rare weekend vote. But when the vote was called, DeMint was a no-show, citing a previous commitment.

“Republican leadership has tried very hard to work with both Coburn and DeMint, and what they’ve found is that you can work with Coburn,” said the former leadership aide.

A source close to DeMint called those complaints sour grapes, saying that gripes about the senator’s pugnacious style are a predictable byproduct of the GOP establishment’s frustration with the success of more conservative grassroots challengers. "They'd rather have go along to get along,” the source said.

The source also refuted the idea that DeMint and Coburn are different types of lawmakers, citing examples of legislation the two had promoted together.

But while aides acknowledge that the two men share the same ideological agenda, they argue that Coburn is more likely to work with his leadership and even cross the aisle to achieve his goals.

“He’s become a pain occasionally,” said Paone, who dealt with Coburn often during his years in the Senate, “but he’s also learned how to legislate.”'s Carrie Dann contributed to this story.