Mike Lee Forces Senate Republicans to Clarify Leadership Rules

After a week of campaigning, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has called it quits on a short-lived effort to win a post inside Senate leadership.

A conservative upstart, Lee tried to break into the GOP’s upper ranks and win the fourth-ranking position as chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee.

If successful, the effort would have cleared much of leadership’s roster. The current chairman, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, would have been sent packing along with Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, chairman of the 54-member Senate Republican Conference and Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, vice chairman.

If elected, Lee would have been strategically positioned to move the conference to the right. Hugely influential, the Senate Republican Policy Committee raises the GOP standard in the Senate both by manufacturing policies and outlining official party positions.

The Washington Examiner first reported that Lee was interested in the spot because he believed Barrasso had to step down because of a term limit set by the rules.

But even if the office came open, it’s unclear whether Lee could have gained the majority of votes needed to win it.

In the Senate, the Republican conference limits those in leadership posts—except for the majority leader—to three terms of two years. The rulebook does not, however, dictate what’s supposed to happen in case of a partial term.

Barrasso became chairman of the Republican Policy Committee after Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., stepped down in 2011 with a year left in his term. That resignation allowed Barrasso, Blunt, and Thune to advance to their current roles.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has maintained that partial terms do not count toward the six-year total limit. And on Tuesday, the conference will gather behind closed doors and vote to clarify the rule.

The last senator to serve in a leadership role for more than six years was Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who served as Republican whip from 1996 to 2003. But in an interview with Politico, Lee said one instance isn’t authoritative.

“The rules are very clear. They’ve never been violated in a way that undermines or contradicts the plain language of the rule,” Lee told Politico last week, adding that the Nickles example was “not on point at all.”

But now that Lee is out of the race, Republicans likely will vote to amend the rules, making certain that partial terms are not counted toward the total limit.

As chairman of the Senate Republican Steering Committee, a conservative faction inside the Republican conference, Lee clashes regularly with leadership. Still, he has shown an aptitude to cut conservative deals on both sides of the aisle—he pushed Republicans to fully repeal Obamacare and joined with Democrats to pursue criminal justice reform.

Lee first floated a bid for the chairmanship of the Republican Policy Committee during an interview with the Washington Examiner, where he aired his conservative qualifications. If elected, he would have been positioned tactically to move the Republican conference to the right.

Lee’s office declined to comment for this report.

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