National Journal

The Senate’s Power Shift


It used to be that appropriators and legislators moved into leadership positions. Now the premium’s on partisans and fundraisers.

By Susan Davis
September 23, 2011

The reaction to Sen. Lamar Alexander’s surprise decision to bow out of the Senate Republican leadership was barely perceptible off Capitol Hill, but not on it, where power is usually coveted, not relinquished. Among other things, his impending exit signals how the chamber’s power dynamic is shifting from senators traditionally rooted in the committee system and lawmaking to those steeped in bare-knuckle electoral politics.

The Tennessee Republican not only announced that he will step down as Senate Republican Conference chairman in January but that he will forgo his bid for the Senate GOP’s No. 2 job of whip in the next Congress. Alexander’s exit leaves Sen. John Cornyn of Texas the clear front-runner for the whip post, and so far he is uncontested in the race—a fact all the more remarkable because the GOP is favored to take over the Senate.

A cornerstone of Cornyn’s strength is his chairmanship of the Senate Republicans’ campaign operation, a job he has done ably and for which he gets mostly high marks from his colleagues. If Republicans win a majority in 2012, other aspiring senators will be hard-pressed to mount a bid against the lawmaker credited with the victory. The whip job could reasonably put Cornyn on a track to become his party’s leader when Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., no longer wants the job.

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