Senate Republicans will use part of their weekly policy lunch on Tuesday to hold a formal conference meeting to clarify rules over term limits for leadership posts, amid confusion over whether three current members of Senate Republican leadership could seek another term later this year.
At issue is whether Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Republican Conference Vice Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) can stay in office during the 115th Congress when it convenes in January.
Senate Republicans impose three-term limits on members who hold those posts. Thune, Barrasso and Blunt all ascended to their current jobs in 2012, when Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) quit his leadership role as conference chairman. Under Republican rules, half-terms don’t count, and by most interpretations the terms of Thune, Barrasso and Blunt will all be up after two more years.
Alexander asked Thune to call the meeting “to reaffirm the existing Senate precedent that partial terms do not count toward term limits,” said Chandler Smith, a spokeswoman for the Senate Republican Conference.
That doesn’t sit well with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who is running to replace Barrasso as Republican Policy Committee chairman. Lee thinks Republican rules make clear that Barrasso — and Blunt and Thune — cannot run for another term in 2017, even after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brought the Senate Republican Conference secretary into last week’s policy lunch to explain her interpretation of the rules.
“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.
McConnell sharply disagreed with Lee’s interpretation of the rules last week.
“If the term limit kicked in at that point you’d have the absurd position at the end of the term limit that you would be in the middle of a Congress, changing, having elections and changing leadership, and changing staff, and all the rest,” McConnell said Tuesday. “We’ve had this issue a couple times in the past, and so I think I can safely say it’s been the position of the conference that a partial term does not count toward a three-term limit.”
The dispute over party rules is the latest clash between current leadership and their allies and several younger, more conservative senators, including Lee, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Lee and Cruz made few friends inside the institution when they led a government shutdown in 2013, though they have won allies among conservative groups around Washington that believe Senate Republican leadership has not been aggressive enough.
Senior staff were notified Saturday of the meeting. Alexander told Morning Consult on Tuesday he believed Lee’s interpretation of the rules was incorrect.
“I think there’s a precedent in place that makes it pretty clear that if you leave in the middle of a term, that’s not counted toward your three terms,” Alexander said.