McConnell-tied super PAC makes early $141M play for the Senate

A Mitch McConnell-aligned super PAC is booking $141 million in fall advertisements to help turn the Senate red, a staggering sum that sets the stage for a vicious battle over the chamber’s control.

The GOP-controlled Senate Leadership Fund is reserving eight-figure ad flights starting in September to protect Republican seats in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as well as to take Democratic-held seats in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada, the group told POLITICO. SLF also laid down millions in Alaska to protect incumbent Lisa Murkowski from a Donald Trump-inspired primary challenge.

Those GOP plans follow the Chuck Schumer-aligned Senate Majority PAC’s moves to set aside $106 million in Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin, Georgia and Pennsylvania, with most of those ads beginning in August.

Taken together, the two primary outside groups in Senate races have slotted nearly a quarter-billion dollars for the fall, with much more spending to follow those initial commitments. With Republicans currently favored to take the House, the 50-50 Senate is shaping up to be this fall’s marquee electoral contest. And it comes with huge stakes: The ability to control the Senate floor and confirm President Joe Biden’s nominees.

“This is such a strong year that we need to invest as broadly and deeply as we can,” Steven Law, the Senate Leadership Fund's president, said in an interview. “In the Senate, majority control is everything. It determines what happens on the floor and what doesn't happen. It will have an impact on future Supreme Court nominations. I mean, there's so much at stake.”

Notably, neither super PAC is putting money yet in New Hampshire, where Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan is running for reelection. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu took a pass on challenging Hassan, and both parties will be watching the September GOP primary closely to see who emerges.

Some Republicans are feeling less and less sure about how competitive they will be in the Granite State, but Law said he feels “very confident that we will end up playing in New Hampshire.” In the interim, Republicans and Democrats alike are concentrating elsewhere.

The McConnell-connected Senate Leadership Fund will drop a whopping $37 million in Georgia this fall, $27 million in North Carolina, $24 million in Pennsylvania, $15 million each in Nevada and Wisconsin, $14 million in Arizona and $7.4 million in Alaska. The Schumer-connected Senate Majority PAC reserved $26 million in Pennsylvania, $22 million in Arizona, $21 million in Nevada, $12 million in Wisconsin and nearly $25 million in Georgia.

Both sums amount to the biggest early investments by the two groups since they were created.

“Both parties recognize the core 2022 Senate map as competitive races in several ‘built to be close’ presidential battleground states. The GOP carries the burden of bad candidates and a badly damaged brand,” said JB Poersch, the president of Senate Majority PAC. “SMP’s intent is obvious: Hold the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate.”

Republicans are feeling extraordinarily positive about netting at least one seat and winning Senate control in November, given Biden’s low approval ratings and polls starting to show significant opportunities to oust Democratic incumbents.

But beating incumbents is always hard, and Democratic senators are generally raising eye-popping sums like Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock’s $13.6 million in the first quarter of this year. With Democratic candidates often outraising the GOP, Law said he expected many Republican candidates to be outspent this fall, requiring a brawny intervention from his PAC to “try to level that playing field.”

Law, a former McConnell chief of staff, also cautioned his party against feeling too confident.

“The only thing that ever concerns me when you're in an environment that's this good, and there's so much talk about the red wave, is that complacency sets in,” Law said.

Not one of the Democratic-held Senate seats "is a layup" for the GOP, Law added. "And, you know, in several of these races … the Democratic incumbent is smart and well funded, and has a pathway to hold under their seat.”

At the moment, the Senate map looks tight. Democrats are defending four incumbents in closely contested states: Hassan, Warnock, Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Sen. Mark Kelly in Arizona. Five GOP incumbents are retiring, but among those states just North Carolina and Pennsylvania appear promising pickups for Democrats so far. And Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson is the GOP’s lone vulnerable incumbent right now.

If things go Republicans’ way, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) could be beatable in November, and Law didn't rule out spending in Washington state, where Tiffany Smiley is challenging a heavily favored Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). On the other hand, a Democratic recovery at the polls could make that party more bullish about North Carolina or make Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) reelection race tougher.

Officials for both groups said their initial plans are subject to change and constantly evolving. Key political groups often change strategies down the line as some races grow more competitive and others fall off the battleground map. By reserving fall airtime in the spring, the groups can lock in lower prices than they would pay later in the year, especially in media markets like Nevada that have competitive races for governor and Congress.

The GOP's Senate Leadership Fund reserved in just six states to start the 2020 battle for Senate control while the Democrats' Senate Majority PAC reserved in five; both groups doubled their footprint as races evolved. As things stand now, the battleground list is smaller in 2022 than it was in 2020.

Ultimately, Democrats captured Senate control in January 2021 in twin runoffs in Georgia, demonstrating just how important every single Senate race is. In the 2020 cycle, the GOP super PAC spent $476 million and the Democratic one spent $372 million. Total spending during this year's midterm is unlikely to rival 2020's in the end, especially since the Georgia runoffs and the presidential race increased costs for Senate campaigns.

This time around, neither of the official party committees have laid down their fall reservations yet, moves that will offer more of a clue of how each party sees the battle for Senate control. Plus there are unresolved primaries to come.

And among those primaries, Republicans have more contested battles than Democrats — sparking some fear in the GOP that bad candidates could blow winnable races. For the time being, though, Law doesn’t necessarily see the need to get involved.

“The only place where there's a candidate who could possibly lose a perfectly winnable race would be Eric Greitens, in Missouri. And now it seems less likely that he'll be the nominee,” Law said. “We don't seek out opportunities to be involved in primaries.”

Another exception? Alaska, where Trump-endorsed Kelly Tshibaka is challenging Murkowski under the state's new open primary and ranked-choice voting system. McConnell has made clear that Senate Republicans stand fully behind Murkowski, who sparked Trump's ire by voting to convict him in an impeachment trial.

Steven Shepard contributed to this report.

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After crossing Trump, Cassidy weighs governor bid

There’s no Senate Republican quite like Bill Cassidy: He voted to convict Donald Trump of inciting an insurrection after getting reelected by 40 points, while helping cut big deals on Covid relief and infrastructure.

Now he’s eyeing the governor’s office in Baton Rouge.

The Louisianan confirmed in an interview that he’s considering running for governor in his state, which has elected conservative Democrat John Bel Edwards to two consecutive terms — the first one over former Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). Cassidy said it’s not his idea, but that he’s “been approached to run for governor” by people in the state.

“They’ve seen what I've done on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, see what I did on Covid relief in December” 2020, Cassidy said on Tuesday. “They obviously see I’m trying to do good things for the state. And they like it.”

Cassidy said he’ll decide by the end of the year on whether to run. But it’s a natural fit for him, since the governor’s race in 2023 offers a low-risk campaign that wouldn’t cost him or his party his Senate seat. What’s more, his inimitable breed of GOP centrism may help Republicans win in a conservative state that’s blown two straight winnable races against the term-limited Edwards.

As much attention as Cassidy’s gotten for his bids to shape an Obamacare replacement and his victory over a legendary Democratic incumbent, he may not be the state’s most popular Republican. The Advocate, which reported over the weekend that Cassidy is considering a run by citing people who have talked to him, also reported on a private gubernatorial poll for 2023 that put Cassidy well behind Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who is up for reelection this year.

The typically chatty Kennedy clammed up when asked about the governor’s race.

“I don’t have any comment. I’m running for the Senate,” Kennedy said on Tuesday. Kennedy considered running for governor himself in 2019 but ultimately decided against it.

The diverging trajectories of Kennedy and Cassidy explain a lot about the split in the Republican Party these days. Kennedy’s voted against much of President Joe Biden’s agenda and already notched a Trump endorsement for his reelection campaign; Cassidy negotiated directly with Biden on infrastructure and cast one of the most surprising votes for Trump’s impeachment.

Many Republicans in his state are not happy with Cassidy’s impeachment vote, according to the Advocate poll. Cassidy insisted impeachment is a “mixed bag” for him in the state, not a disqualifier, saying it’s likely to be overshadowed by the rest of his record and that a voter may want “somebody that can help run the state, provide some vision."

“There's obviously going to be some people who carry [hard feelings about the impeachment vote], but there's some people who applaud it,” Cassidy said. “I suspect there are some people who say, ‘Well, you know, maybe I don't care about the vote, but I certainly like the fact that we're going to have universal access to affordable high speed internet’ because of what I worked on.”

Cassidy’s skepticism of the Trump defense team during last year's impeachment trial after the Jan. 6 insurrection was a game-changing moment for the GOP. At the time, the senator ridiculed the arguments on behalf of Trump and said the impeachment managers were making a better case, shocking his colleagues and reporters covering the trial.

In the end, he was one of seven Republican senators to vote against the then-president. Cassidy got censured by his state and local GOP for his troubles.

Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.), who supports Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry for governor, said Cassidy would "be one of the other guys that we beat."

"He has a right to be wrong. Bill is is not my enemy. So his decisions on how he has voted through the course of his career, that's between him and his constituents and his own conscience," Higgins said.

If he runs and wins the governor's seat next year, he would similarly shake up the Senate. The second-term Louisianian has become a vital member of the chamber’s centrist coalition over the past two years, focusing mostly on pandemic aid and infrastructure. Several of his colleagues were shocked that Cassidy is considering a gubernatorial bid, with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) saying it’s the first he’s heard of it and a stunned Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) replying: “Seriously?”

“That’s sort of a natural thing for a guy like him to do,” Cramer said after a pause. “Bill’s got an independent streak that will probably serve pretty well in Louisiana. He’s a skilled guy.”

Still, Cassidy would break the typical mold if he actually went through with it. As Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) put it: “Usually, it’s the other way,” with governors transitioning to the Senate. King is one of 13 former governors in the upper chamber.

“Bill Cassidy’s a guy who obviously likes getting things done. Governor is where you have a lot more opportunity to set the agenda, to actually see things accomplished,” King said, while allowing that in the Senate, “you’re dealing with issues at the highest level.”

Cassidy clearly relishes that agenda-determining power when it comes to policy. He courted a national spotlight, and attendant political blowback, working with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on a 2017 proposal to turn Obamacare into block grants to states that was one of the GOP's several failed attempts to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act.

The former practicing gastroenterologist is hardly the first senator to mull seeking statewide executive office, a move that at least one member seems to make every few years. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) weighed running for his old job again in 2020 and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) considered running for governor in 2018, though both decided to stay in the Senate.

Yet only one former senator is currently a governor: Ohio Republican Mike DeWine. And he didn’t get there the same way Cassidy would: DeWine badly lost his reelection campaign in 2006 to Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), eventually becoming governor 12 years later.

Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.

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Old St. Chuck? Schumer under pressure to deliver by Christmas

Chuck Schumer leapt over the trap doors of a potential government shutdown and debt default. Now he has to stick the landing on one of the largest spending bills in American history.

As the Senate majority leader checks off his chamber’s list of must-pass bills, he’s turning to the urgent task of passing President Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion social safety net bill before the long holiday break. Just a few obstacles lie in his way: Joe Manchin’s concern over rising inflation, the need for total party unity and only a few days left to meet his goal of final passage by Christmas. Oh, yeah, and the final deal isn’t finished yet.

Nonetheless, Democrats say Schumer is pressing forward on his repeated vows to finish work on the climate and social policy legislation in the next two weeks. Before senators scattered all over the country for the weekend, Schumer held meetings with Manchin, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and groups of senators working to finalize the bill’s tricky tax section.

Summing up Schumer’s breakneck negotiating pace, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) surmised: “We’re getting into that frantic stage. It’s usually a good sign.”

“It's tough,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said of Schumer’s job, observing that the leader's stress “truly does depend on the day. He's been under some pressure. You can tell it from his voice. Other days are fine. I think this has been a good week for him.”

Schumer’s deft work with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that dispensed of a debt crisis, a government shutdown risk and the annual defense policy bill were his first steps toward getting the social spending package on the Senate floor. But passing the party-line legislation will be Schumer’s toughest test yet as majority leader, capping off a grinding year that kept his hands full from the moment he took the reins of American history's longest-running 50-50 Senate.

In the coming days, Schumer and his members must first finalize bill text, then finish fighting with Republicans on how much of the legislation will survive the scrutiny of a nonpartisan parliamentarian who may pare back immigration, health care and other provisions as noncompliant with the rules. Putting the whole measure on the floor will be even trickier, particularly as Manchin’s ambivalence vexes the Democratic caucus.

Schumer and Manchin enjoy a closer relationship than the West Virginian had with the caucus' last leader, Harry Reid, but there’s still an open question of whether the New Yorker can deliver his most vocal centrist’s vote after all of Manchin's critical comments about the bill. Democrats say it’s primarily Schumer’s job to get that 50th vote, though Biden will also speak to Manchin as soon as Monday.

Schumer’s Thursday schedule illustrates his juggling act. He called Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to wish her happy birthday, told her to “keep fighting” for paid leave and then did a press conference with her stumping for that cause. That same day, Schumer also holed up in his leadership suite with Manchin — who opposes putting paid leave in the party-line bill.

“I have faith that Sen. Schumer can get Joe Manchin to yes,” Gillibrand said in an interview. “Before Christmas.”

Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have repeatedly used artificial deadlines to try to move the second pillar of Biden's domestic agenda along. And Manchin almost always says he’s ignoring his own leaders' tactic. Lately he’s implied that Schumer can put the social spending bill up for a vote and simply see where the chips fall.

Yet Democrats still see the last days of December as their absolute best opportunity to get it done. Senators are beginning to get sick of each other after a year that opened with an insurrection and an impeachment trial and is ending in with a round of manic legislating. The Senate is putting its own touches on its version of the bill, releasing two critical updates for the health and tax portions on Saturday.

Plus, the expanded child tax credit expires at the end of year without action on Biden’s domestic spending bill, threatening to cut off payments to families in the middle of the winter. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said that’s “the forcing mechanism. And Chuck's using it this way.” Meanwhile, he added, the high stakes of passing the bill are beginning to weigh on just about everyone in the 50-member caucus.

“We're all stressed," Kaine said.

Sensing the burden on Schumer, Republicans are beginning to predict he can’t deliver a victory on time. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a longtime sparring partner, embodies the GOP's gleeful heckling at a moment of uncertainty.

“No. He’s not going to get it done this year,” Cornyn said. “Every day that goes by it’s going to be harder to do.”

Even if he can't meet his own mark, Schumer has undeniably prevailed in other areas. In an evenly split Senate, he passed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, a $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure package and legislation to boost competitiveness with China. Within the confines of the filibuster, his biggest setback remains the Senate’s inability to pass an elections reform bill — although he has united his caucus around several proposals after a long struggle.

Thus far, he’s also avoided an implosion on the Senate floor akin to the Republicans’ failure to repeal Obamacare in 2017. There’s certainly a chance that the next few days could culminate in failure, or at least a delay in floor consideration until next year as Manchin’s inflation fears slow the whole social spending bill down.

There’s a lot riding on Schumer’s repeated statements about a vote before Christmas. For now, Democrats are taking him at his word.

"He handles things. He’s a guy from New York. He figures things out,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Finishing the job with Manchin, added Brown, “falls to all of us. It falls most on him.”

Posted in Uncategorized

Old St. Chuck? Schumer under pressure to deliver by Christmas

Chuck Schumer leapt over the trap doors of a potential government shutdown and debt default. Now he has to stick the landing on one of the largest spending bills in American history.

As the Senate majority leader checks off his chamber’s list of must-pass bills, he’s turning to the urgent task of passing President Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion social safety net bill before the long holiday break. Just a few obstacles lie in his way: Joe Manchin’s concern over rising inflation, the need for total party unity and only a few days left to meet his goal of final passage by Christmas. Oh, yeah, and the final deal isn’t finished yet.

Nonetheless, Democrats say Schumer is pressing forward on his repeated vows to finish work on the climate and social policy legislation in the next two weeks. Before senators scattered all over the country for the weekend, Schumer held meetings with Manchin, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and groups of senators working to finalize the bill’s tricky tax section.

Summing up Schumer’s breakneck negotiating pace, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) surmised: “We’re getting into that frantic stage. It’s usually a good sign.”

“It's tough,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said of Schumer’s job, observing that the leader's stress “truly does depend on the day. He's been under some pressure. You can tell it from his voice. Other days are fine. I think this has been a good week for him.”

Schumer’s deft work with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that dispensed of a debt crisis, a government shutdown risk and the annual defense policy bill were his first steps toward getting the social spending package on the Senate floor. But passing the party-line legislation will be Schumer’s toughest test yet as majority leader, capping off a grinding year that kept his hands full from the moment he took the reins of American history's longest-running 50-50 Senate.

In the coming days, Schumer and his members must first finalize bill text, then finish fighting with Republicans on how much of the legislation will survive the scrutiny of a nonpartisan parliamentarian who may pare back immigration, health care and other provisions as noncompliant with the rules. Putting the whole measure on the floor will be even trickier, particularly as Manchin’s ambivalence vexes the Democratic caucus.

Schumer and Manchin enjoy a closer relationship than the West Virginian had with the caucus' last leader, Harry Reid, but there’s still an open question of whether the New Yorker can deliver his most vocal centrist’s vote after all of Manchin's critical comments about the bill. Democrats say it’s primarily Schumer’s job to get that 50th vote, though Biden will also speak to Manchin as soon as Monday.

Schumer’s Thursday schedule illustrates his juggling act. He called Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to wish her happy birthday, told her to “keep fighting” for paid leave and then did a press conference with her stumping for that cause. That same day, Schumer also holed up in his leadership suite with Manchin — who opposes putting paid leave in the party-line bill.

“I have faith that Sen. Schumer can get Joe Manchin to yes,” Gillibrand said in an interview. “Before Christmas.”

Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have repeatedly used artificial deadlines to try to move the second pillar of Biden's domestic agenda along. And Manchin almost always says he’s ignoring his own leaders' tactic. Lately he’s implied that Schumer can put the social spending bill up for a vote and simply see where the chips fall.

Yet Democrats still see the last days of December as their absolute best opportunity to get it done. Senators are beginning to get sick of each other after a year that opened with an insurrection and an impeachment trial and is ending in with a round of manic legislating. The Senate is putting its own touches on its version of the bill, releasing two critical updates for the health and tax portions on Saturday.

Plus, the expanded child tax credit expires at the end of year without action on Biden’s domestic spending bill, threatening to cut off payments to families in the middle of the winter. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said that’s “the forcing mechanism. And Chuck's using it this way.” Meanwhile, he added, the high stakes of passing the bill are beginning to weigh on just about everyone in the 50-member caucus.

“We're all stressed," Kaine said.

Sensing the burden on Schumer, Republicans are beginning to predict he can’t deliver a victory on time. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a longtime sparring partner, embodies the GOP's gleeful heckling at a moment of uncertainty.

“No. He’s not going to get it done this year,” Cornyn said. “Every day that goes by it’s going to be harder to do.”

Even if he can't meet his own mark, Schumer has undeniably prevailed in other areas. In an evenly split Senate, he passed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, a $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure package and legislation to boost competitiveness with China. Within the confines of the filibuster, his biggest setback remains the Senate’s inability to pass an elections reform bill — although he has united his caucus around several proposals after a long struggle.

Thus far, he’s also avoided an implosion on the Senate floor akin to the Republicans’ failure to repeal Obamacare in 2017. There’s certainly a chance that the next few days could culminate in failure, or at least a delay in floor consideration until next year as Manchin’s inflation fears slow the whole social spending bill down.

There’s a lot riding on Schumer’s repeated statements about a vote before Christmas. For now, Democrats are taking him at his word.

"He handles things. He’s a guy from New York. He figures things out,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Finishing the job with Manchin, added Brown, “falls to all of us. It falls most on him.”

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Murkowski has the moxie to take on Trump. Will she?

Lisa Murkowski has an ice-cold review of the Donald Trump-backed conservative who's vowing to topple her in Alaska’s Senate race next year.

“It doesn't surprise me. The president has said, you know, that he's gonna endorse anybody that has a pulse,” the Alaska Republican said of GOP challenger, Kelly Tshibaka. “This, apparently, is somebody with a pulse.”

That blunt assessment of Tshibaka reflects Murkowski’s combination of confidence and wariness ahead of what's shaping up as an unpleasant midterm campaign for her. She’s the only GOP incumbent senator to earn Trump’s ire this year after voting to convict him in his second impeachment trial, a move that got her censured by her state party. He has vowed to campaign against her in person.

Most of her colleagues believe she's leaning toward seeking a fourth term, given her fundraising and private remarks to them as well as donors. Murkowski, however, is quiet about her plans.

“I have not made public my intentions,” she said in a recent interview.

If she decides to run again, she has a formidable record on her side. The 64-year-old moderate won a write-in campaign in 2010 after losing her GOP primary to tea party darling Joe Miller, and she romped to a third term by 15 points in 2016 despite never endorsing Trump. She also has support from the GOP establishment this time around, and they’re in rare alignment together against the former president.

But like a handful of other Senate Republicans who are keeping their options open for 2022, Murkowski is staying mum on her future. Her votes to confirm Biden nominees like Justice Department No. 3 Vanita Gupta and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland privately raised suspicions among some Republicans that she might retire.

As Trump weighs into a variety of congressional races, his revenge campaign against Murkowski serves as a test case for whether any veteran Republicans can survive his wrath. Murkowski’s father, a senator turned governor, appointed his daughter to his former seat in 2002. She’s now been a fixture of the party’s moderate wing for nearly 20 years.

After famously teaching voters how to spell her name during that 2010 race, Murkowski’s write-in campaign is now Senate legend. Should she run next year, she'll benefit from recent changes to Alaskan elections that install a top-four jungle primary and allow voters to rank their choices in the general election.

As Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) put it: “I want a Republican to win in Alaska. And I think it’s pretty obvious she’s a winner.”

“The most important thing to me is, we win,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “I don’t know whether that’s the most important thing to the former president.”

Sen. John Cornyn heads to the Senate floor.

Whether Murkowski runs again — and wins — is a question that could reshape the Senate. Murkowski is perhaps the most unpredictable Republican in the chamber, rarely tipping her hand on critical votes and equally aggravating both parties at times.

She can wear her heart on her sleeve during long, candid chats with the Capitol press, opening up after her vote against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and her February vote to impeach Trump. But she can also stay quiet for days ahead of a tough vote.

Sitting next to her friend Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) on the floor, she's a leader in a moderate bloc that’s played a decisive role in several major votes. The Alaskan is one of the key negotiators on a bipartisan infrastructure deal and relishes the potential for deal-making with President Joe Biden in office.

While she'd probably see no disadvantage to running as an independent, Murkowski said last month that’s not on her radar: “The Republican Party that I am proud to call myself a member of … still is out there. On some days, though, it just seems like you've got to look harder to find it.”

Murkowski’s campaign has more than $1 million on hand and has outraised Tshibaka so far, $380,000 to $214,000 in the first quarter of the year. But she may need more money than that to blunt the attention Trump will bring her opponent: Tshibaka raised that $214,000 in days.

And though Murkowski is eager to demonstrate her strong working relationship with Biden, Tshibaka is using her votes for his nominees and agenda against her back home.

Tshibaka’s campaign did not make her available for an interview. Tim Murtaugh, a senior adviser to Tshibaka, said Murkowski "has the support of Beltway insiders. Kelly Tshibaka is proud to stand with President Trump, his supporters, and the great people of Alaska."

A Change Research poll released earlier this month showed Murkowski trailing against Tshibaka and Democrat Al Gross, who lost to Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) last year and is considering another run.

Murkowski signaled that at the moment, her mind is far from the campaign trenches.

“I'm doing what [Alaskans] have asked me to do, which is getting up every morning, and working on the issues that are important to Alaska. And as I'm doing that, I am doing what any good incumbent would,” Murkowski said. “You take steps to get yourself ready. And I’m being diligent in that regard as well. But it means that I'm a pretty busy lady.”

National Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are backing Murkowski’s campaign — not an insignificant decision given her penchant for bucking the party. Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-aligned super PAC, endorsed her this spring.

These moves are notable because the seat is relatively safe for Republicans, regardless of whether she runs again. The state has reformed its electoral system into a top-four jungle primary, which insulates Murkowski from losing a head-to-head with Tshibaka.

But because Alaska is no battleground (a Democrat has not won a Senate race there since 2008), it’s not clear if the National Republican Senatorial Committee will go to the mat for Murkowski. Its chair, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), said he is supporting her because backing incumbents is in the “bylaws” of the NRSC. But he said he has not cajoled her to run again.

Sen. Rick Scott attends a news conference about the coronavirus relief bill.

Murkowski also enjoys strong relationships with Democrats, from progressives like Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) to centrists like Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Joe Manchin. The West Virginian already has said he will support Murkowski’s campaign.

“She adds value,” Tester said of Murkowski. “She’s not unreasonable. We don’t agree all the time, but shit, I don’t agree with my wife all the time either.”

Murkowski has less institutional support from her party back home. Several former state party chairs endorsed Tshibaka in April as the insurgent candidate signals she'd be a shift to the right.

Tshibaka’s focus so far is mostly on cutting spending and attacking the party establishment, with a shot at Murkowski’s appointment by her father Frank featured on the challenger's webpage: “Kelly believes that Alaska's Senate Seat isn't something that should be passed down like a family heirloom.”

She's also started hitting the airwaves early with two ads this month. Tshibaka's spending has been minimal so far: just $8,000, according to data from AdImpact.

Though there’s still a significant Trump bloc in the Senate Republican conference, none has yet sided against Murkowski. That’s notable enough considering hardliners in her own party, led by former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who tried to oust her 11 years ago after she lost her primary.

Yet at a minimum, Trump’s allies said there’s no going back on his pledge to oppose her. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Trump’s “made up his mind about Sen. Murkowski and it would be wasted effort” to try and dissuade him.

After all, a year ago the former president made his memorable promise to support anyone who challenged Murkowski: “If you have a pulse, I'm with you!"

James Arkin and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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‘Poor Chuck’: Schumer confronts midyear mess

Senate Democrats are publicly divided over infrastructure strategy. The caucus' most conservative senator openly rebelled against the party’s signature elections bill. And two of Chuck Schumer’s members keep clashing on military sexual assault reform.

It’s enough to invoke a bit of pity for the voluble New Yorker who holds the reins of a 50-50 Senate. There's a growing feeling on the Hill that Democrats are already running out of time to deliver on years of promises.

As Schumer ally Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) put it: “Poor Chuck! He’s got the weight of the world on him.”

The majority leader has hugely consequential issues bearing down on him, such as climate change, Whitehouse said in an interview, “and he has no margin to work with. And an implacable and amoral opponent in" Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“There’s nobody that I can think of who could do it better than he does,” Whitehouse added. “But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. And it doesn’t mean it’s easy on him.”

To the outside observer, Schumer’s strategy of letting maverick Senate gangs try to negotiate legislation and allowing disagreements to play out among his members might look a bit like chaos. But he keeps his members so close, with telephone calls and personal meetings, that none are criticizing him for his leadership style. Even his Republican counterparts insist there’s a method to the madness.

Schumer himself is a happy warrior who rarely shows that the weight of the job troubles him. He concedes being majority leader is tougher than uniting the minority, but he always pairs that with a love for his job and his 49 Democratic colleagues.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., carries his baggage as he arrives at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, June 7, 2021, after a ten-day recess. As Democrats strain to deliver on President Joe Biden's agenda, Schumer has warned colleagues that June will

He has, however, taken an increasingly realistic view on the prospects for President Joe Biden’s agenda given a majority that ranges from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on the left to Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin on the right. With those constraints in mind, he recently promised to pursue the “biggest bold action that we can get.”

“America needs big, bold change and I’m doing everything I can to make that happen,” Schumer said in a brief interview.

Asked about whether he should be tougher on his resistant members, he responded: “Unity brings us strength and success. That’s what’s worked every time on every tough challenge in the past. And it’s going to continue to work that way.”

Schumer triumphed in passing a long-sought China competitiveness bill this month and kept his party together through the toughest issues of the last four years: Donald Trump’s two impeachments, Obamacare repeal attempts, GOP tax cuts and Biden's $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill. And he made considerable progress this month rallying his party around a strategy that gives Biden a little more time to negotiate with Republicans on infrastructure, with a unilateral fallback approach if the talks drag on much longer.

But after vowing that “failure is not an option” on voting rights, he’s staring down a potential major defeat thanks to the constraints of the GOP’s filibuster power and internal divisions over whether to kill the 60-vote requirement or keep trying to work with Republicans. Manchin’s opposition to his party’s bill has brought a new wave of scrutiny to Senate Democrats, and Schumer himself.

Progress on gun safety, immigration reform and police conduct is also unsteady at best, with no breakthroughs on those issues after weeks of talks. His New York Democratic colleague Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has taken to the floor seven times to try and force a vote on her long-sought military sexual assault reform, only to be stopped every time, usually by Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.). Bipartisan infrastructure talks have staggered along for nearly two months now.

Still, the tasks at hand aren't quite as urgent as what Schumer faced when he first took over in January: a new majority and president, a pile of Cabinet confirmations, an impeachment trial after the Jan. 6 insurrection and responding to the Covid crisis.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a frequent Schumer combatant and longtime workout partner, said Schumer’s style “strikes me as a little unconventional.” Yet Cornyn believes, beneath the daily drama, there’s a grander plan afoot.

“I always know what Sen. Schumer’s priorities are,” Cornyn said. “To beat the Republicans in the election.”

Schumer’s style of letting his members publicly work out their differences is undoubtedly different than the tighter grip on party priorities held by his predecessor, former Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. (Reid also had larger majorities to work with.) It’s also vastly divergent from GOP leader McConnell, whose single-minded pursuit of judicial nominations may never be equaled.

The 70-year-old Brooklynite is more eager to let it all play out and pursue the messy process of legislating in an evenly divided Senate. And his members seem fine with the laissez-faire approach. Gillibrand said she would rather have Biden lean on Reed to relent and allow a quick vote than have Schumer use his procedural powers to force the issue, burning a week of floor time that could be used more efficiently on something else.

When asked about Schumer’s strategy, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) replied that he “would not use the word chaos.” Instead, he said Schumer has a “solid plan.”

“He’s still on a good path. And he’s managing what is a very diverse caucus,” Heinrich said, adding that Schumer is “engaging when he needs to engage to get to the next level. But not micromanaging every little piece and part. Because that’s what builds buy-in, especially from the members that are closer to the edge of our caucus.”

Schumer's toughest voter to sway is happy with where things are. Before the Senate broke for the weekend, Manchin praised his leader by name for allowing bipartisanship to have a chance: “I really appreciate Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, going through this process that we’re all benefiting from."

Manchin is in the middle of a motley negotiating group trying to force bipartisan action on infrastructure, helping secure a tentative deal announced Thursday that is still short of details. Budget Committee Chair Sanders (I-Vt.) favors a different approach, pledging to move a bill as soon as he can that would allow Democrats to exclude Republicans.

“For many, many decades the United States Congress has worried about the needs of the rich,” Sanders said. “Now is the time to pay attention to the working families of this country.”

Asked if Schumer is addressing those priorities well, Sanders demurred: “OK, good.” He then got on an elevator and ushered himself away.

Internally, Schumer shored up his position last week by laying out a detailed blueprint for how to secure big infrastructure spending as well as other priorities like paid leave and tax increases for the rich at a Tuesday caucus lunch. His members left the room confident that regardless of whether they strike a deal with Republicans, there is a path to success on another massive tranche of spending.

“We’re not going to sit around and wait til forever. We’re also trying to develop the other track so we’re ready to go so it’s not, 'Oh darn, let’s start this,'” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the No. 3 Democratic leader.

Despite the building pressure, the setbacks this year have been few and far between for Schumer, at least when it comes to his fellow Democrats. Aside from divisions on the minimum wage and other issues related to the coronavirus bill, his caucus all voted for the final compromise as well as Trump’s second impeachment, the Jan. 6 commission and a pay equity bill.

Now, internal defections may be just over the horizon as the Senate prepares to consider the elections bill. But at the moment Schumer seemed most troubled that his China competitiveness bill, the Endless Frontier Act, was renamed with a boring acronym before it passed the chamber.

“I loved that name,” Schumer lamented last week. “But some people thought it had to do with covered wagons or something. So we changed it to USICA.”

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Filibuster brawl amps up with GOP opposition to Jan. 6 panel

The filibuster has been on hiatus since Joe Biden took over. Senate Republicans are about to change that — over a bipartisan commission to probe the Capitol riot.

After more than four months of letting their power to obstruct lie unused in the Senate, the 50-member Senate GOP is ready to mount a filibuster of House-passed legislation creating an independent cross-aisle panel to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection. If Republicans follow through and block the bill, they will spark a long-building fight over the filibuster’s very existence.

The filibuster has spent months of lurking in the background of the Senate’s daily business, but the battle over the chamber’s 60-vote threshold will erupt as soon as next week. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is plotting to bring the House's Jan. 6 commission bill to the floor and daring Senate Republicans to block it.

And GOP opposition is hardening by the day. According to interviews with more than a half-dozen Republicans on Thursday, there is almost no path to even opening up debate on the bill — much less passing it.

“I don’t think there will be 10 votes on our side for it,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind). “At this stage, I’d be surprised if you’re gonna get even a handful.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been circumspect about his use of the filibuster, leaving the tool untouched so far this Congress as his conference has advanced Democratic bills confronting hate crimes, planning water infrastructure and increasing American competitiveness. But the Jan. 6 commission — and talking about former President Donald Trump for months on end — is a bridge too far for the GOP.

Now that McConnell is pushing his conference toward a filibuster of a bipartisan bill, Democrats see an opportunity to begin making their case to reluctant members that the 60-vote status quo is unsustainable.

As an incredulous Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) put it: “How do you go forward if you can't make it work over something like an independent commission?"

“That’s their problem. They can prove how difficult life is with the filibuster if they’re not careful,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin. “When the filibuster is actually used, it becomes an exhibit in the case against continuing it.”

Some Republicans, such as Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine, are still amenable to opening debate on the bill and amending it to ensure the investigation is completed this year and that the commission is staffed in a bipartisan way. But overall, Senate Republicans have rapidly shifted into wholesale opposition to the commission concept this week, reasoning that tanking a commission in May of 2021 is better than setting up Trump headlines well into the midterm year.

GOP senators aren't exactly looking forward to the moment.

“It’s a dicey vote. It’s set up to be anti-Trump, pro-Trump vote, in my view,” said one undecided Republican senator. “As somebody who voted not to impeach, I still am interested in finding out what happened.”

What’s more, Trump has directly linked himself to the vote on the commission. He criticized the 35 House Republicans who supported it and is publicly leaning on the Senate GOP to defeat it. It would not be lost on Democrats that Republicans appear to be using the filibuster to help Trump avoid months of headlines about his actions stoking the Jan. 6 riot.

Democrats didn’t exactly draw it up this way. Just a few days ago, it appeared the Republican Party wanted to make changes to the bipartisan commission, not block it altogether.

The more salient vote for the filibuster’s future might come this summer when Democrats’ voting-rights plans hit the Senate floor. And unlike other Democratic priorities, the bipartisan commission appears to have unanimous party support.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of the filibuster’s strongest supporters in the Democratic Party, seemed aghast that his GOP colleagues are on track to block the bill.

“So disheartening. It makes you really concerned about our country,” Manchin said. Asked if that is an abuse of the filibuster: “I’m still praying we’ve still got 10 good solid patriots within that conference.”

McConnell and Senate Minority Whip John Thune have not begun twisting arms, but leadership has delivered an unmistakable message that the commission needs to be disposed of on the Senate floor when Schumer brings it up. McConnell’s close ally, former Senate Intelligence Chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.), has been making an aggressive case against the bill.

Burr, the most surprising vote for Trump’s conviction at his impeachment trial, said there are no changes that could be made to the legislation to win his support.

“I know how difficult it is. So this myth that you could finish this by December? You probably couldn’t even get your staff security clearance to read the documents,” Burr said. “There’s no question” this would bleed into the midterms.

Burr and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said they expect committee reports on the Jan. 6 pro-Trump riot at the Capitol to come down in June, arguing that would preempt the need for a bipartisan commission with subpoena power. Not all Republicans are sold on their line of thinking.

“I’m not going to worry about the party. I’m going to worry about what’s the right thing for the country and for the Senate. And I support the effort to learn more about the attack on Jan. 6,” Romney said. “Susan Collins made good points in insisting the staff be a bipartisan staff and making it clear that we really do intend to be finished by the end of the year. I will not have this go into an election year.”

Besides Burr, the other six Republicans like Romney that voted to convict Trump are either undecided or supportive. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) has been most emphatic in his support for the commission.

But it’s hard to find a path to 60 votes without a more general acceptance in the GOP that a commission is needed. Several senators reported that in the GOP caucus room, momentum is building the other way.

Moreover, it’s an open question whether the Senate will wrap up work on Schumer’s American competitiveness legislation before its upcoming recess. That means the commission vote could slip until June, which would fail to capitalize on the current mayhem in the House GOP over Rep. John Katko's (R-N.Y.) deal with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the investigative panel.

Blunt said Republicans could make it difficult for Schumer to quickly move onto the Jan. 6 commission if Schumer tries to force a vote next week. He said Schumer’s competitiveness bill “wouldn’t succeed” if he attempted to rush it through to move toward the commission vote.

But if Republicans blocked the competitiveness bill, that too would be the first filibuster of this Congress. Progressives are itching to start the filibuster fight, regardless of which bill prompts the first one of this Congress.

"If we get to a point where compromise, bipartisanship is not going to work, and it's just basically delaying what we need to be doing, then we need to face the issue of filibuster,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). "I'd like to see it dealt with now.”

Marianne Levine contributed to this report.

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Ernst defends fellow Republican leader Cheney — but calls for intra-GOP peace

INDEPENDENCE, Iowa — Sen. Joni Ernst doesn’t agree with Liz Cheney’s opposition to former President Donald Trump. The Iowa Republican still says her fellow GOP leader has the right to stand her ground.

Ernst, the Capitol's only other Republican woman in elected leadership aside from Cheney, said in an interview that her Wyoming colleague shouldn't be expected to fall in line rhetorically or keep her mouth shut just to appease her GOP critics. But as Cheney forgoes a fight to keep her House leadership spot amid a push to unseat her for her Donald Trump apostasy, Ernst urged their party to get past its long-running battle between pro-Trump and anti-Trump factions as it prepares its campaign to take back Congress next year.

“Any elected official should stand their ground. If you feel firmly about something, you should stand your ground. But I also believe that we need to come together as a party, recognize we have differences within the party but the goal with us should be to win seats,” Ernst said here after a stop on her annual 99-county tour.

With “what’s going on in the House," she added, "they need to evaluate: Is this helping or hurting our party?”

Ernst is the No. 5 leader in the Senate Republican conference and will seek to ascend to the No. 4 spot of Republican Policy Committee chair following next year's retirement of Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri. The second-term senator did not say explicitly she wants Cheney to remain as the No. 3 House Republican but had warm words for her colleague even as many in the House GOP seek to toss Cheney out of leadership.

“I know Liz. I appreciate Liz so much. And she feels very strongly about her stance. And again, I know many Republicans that feel very strongly about their stance: pro-Trump, not for Trump, whatever it is. But at the end of the day we have work to get done,” Ernst said.

Cheney may be ousted as soon as next week for continuing to push back against Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen from him. She survived a bid to remove her from leadership earlier this year after she voted to impeach Trump for inciting a riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Ernst voted to acquit Trump in his second impeachment trial, although she also voted to certify the election for President Joe Biden even as most House Republicans and a handful of Senate Republicans sought to challenge the election results.

Her warm words for Cheney on Wednesday went beyond those of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who declined to weigh in when asked if he would do anything to help Cheney keep her position.

"100 percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration," he said at an event in Kentucky. McConnell has previously backed Cheney amid the Wyoming Republican's criticism from within their party.

And when Ernst does talk about Trump, she doesn’t sound at all like Cheney — or McConnell, who criticized Trump before his own acquittal vote and has since avoided the former president's jabs.

“I appreciate President Trump and I appreciate all he has done for our country. And I think we made significant strides forward under the Trump administration, especially in our economy. But everybody has the right to express their opinion,” Ernst said.

She followed with a piece of advice for her party: “At the end of the day we need to all pull together as Republicans and make sure that we’re securing seats.”

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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McConnell’s No. 2 weighs future as Trump reshapes Senate GOP

John Thune could eventually succeed Mitch McConnell as Senate GOP leader. But first the second-ranked Republican has to decide whether to run for reelection — with Donald Trump prepared to stand in his way.

As fellow GOP senators like Jerry Moran of Kansas or John Boozman of Arkansas announce their 2022 campaigns, usually with the backing of the former president, Thune is taking his time.

“In this day and age, these campaigns are so long. And I think they start way too early,” the South Dakota Republican said in an interview on Wednesday, noting he usually waits until the fall to announce his reelection bids. “We’re moving forward doing all the things that you do. And at some point, we’ll make everything official.”

Of course, that sounds a little like two GOP senators, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Rob Portman of Ohio, who sent all the right signals about running again — until they bowed out. Given his still-bright future in the party and $13 million campaign stash, colleagues are certain Thune runs again.

But his decision looms as the Senate GOP nears a serious crossroads, with five incumbents announcing their retirements and Trump waiting to engage in multiple Republican primaries as he tries to reshape the party’s Senate conference in his image. Several other senators are undecided on running again.

Thune acknowledged that the state of the Senate has nosedived during his 16 years in the chamber, which began when he shocked the political world and defeated former Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in 2004. He fears that things could become only more miserable for the GOP minority if Democrats kill the filibuster.

“We’re losing a ton of talent, a ton of experience and expertise. And so, you know, you hate to see quality people leave. And if the Democrats pursue the course they’re on right now and try and do everything by pure majority rule, obviously, it won’t be a fun place to be,” he said. “It’s probably as challenging today as it’s ever been, given the political environment.”

Trump’s vow to campaign against him doesn’t visibly ruffle Thune, a lanky former basketball player. “It’s not something I’m weighing heavily one way or the other,” the 60-year-old said. He’s laughed off Trump’s attacks on him, advising his party to avoid revolving around one person and focus on issues.

But running for reelection against a vengeful former president wouldn’t be ideal even if Thune would be the heavy favorite. And Trump whisperer Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is trying to clear the runway for Thune to launch a campaign without interference from the former president, lobbying Trump to lay off.

“I don’t know what President Trump is going to do in terms of primary endorsements. But I would hope he’ll look closely at Sen. Thune. He’s a great guy,” Graham said. “It just matters what [Thune] wants to do. I hope he runs. I think he’s been a great senator.”

Thune isn’t the only Republican whose future is sparking intraparty chatter: Kentucky Republicans are moving to change the state’s Senate appointment rules to avoid a Democratic replacement for McConnell, a move supported by McConnell but vetoed by the governor. Some Republican senators have reviewed a story that ran in The Intercept about possible replacements for McConnell but privately say the GOP leader is merely consolidating his legacy, not crafting an exit strategy.

Allies say McConnell is certain to stay in office into 2023, in part to break Mike Mansfield’s record as longest-serving Senate leader of all time. Asked Wednesday about his plans to stay on as GOP leader in the future, McConnell would only say: “That’s a decision I make every two years.”

McConnell was reelected to a six-year term last fall but has tangled with Trump after the former president’s campaign to overturn the election and what the senator called Trump's “dereliction of duty” in not helping protect the Capitol.

If Thune were to surprise his party and retire early, or if McConnell stepped down as leader before 2026, their departures would hollow out an already-reeling Republican conference. The five Republicans planning to leave after next year all play prominent roles for the party, with Blunt serving as its No. 4 Senate leader.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said in an interview on Wednesday she plans to run to succeed Blunt as the Republican Policy Committee chair. She is currently the No. 5 GOP leader, meaning that there will be an elected leadership vacancy next fall.

Blunt's not alone in leaving shoes to fill. Retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.) is the Banking Committee's top Republican. Retiring Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) holds that senior GOP spot on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel, while Portman occupies it on the Homeland Security panel and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) on the Appropriations Committee.

Strident Trump supporter Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is likely to replace either Burr or Portman as the top Republican on one of the committees they're vacating after this Congress. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who voted to convict Trump, is in line for the party's top appropriations slot.

The retiring quintet might be joined by other senior Republicans. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is undecided on running again, as is top Senate Judiciary Committee Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa. Grassley is raising money but said that doesn’t reflect that he’s decided to run.

“The reason I’m going to make a decision this fall is: One year is long enough to campaign, but if I do run for reelection, one year is not enough to raise money,” Grassley said on Wednesday.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who voted to convict Trump in his impeachment trial, has signaled she is running again but not yet made an official announcement. Trump has promised to campaign against her, too, but she won reelection in 2010 as a write-in candidate and her state’s new voting rules have eased her path in 2022.

Then there’s Thune, who has basically ruled out a run for president as “not something I aspire to do.” But he is still interested in one day being Senate Republican leader if and when McConnell ever goes: “You don’t rule anything out.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former whip and party campaign chair, is also in the mix for that job.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said that when it’s time for someone to succeed McConnell, he will support Thune. And he said that no matter what Trump does and who runs against his South Dakota colleague, Thune will be OK.

“He can’t take anything for granted. Nobody can. ... But he’s the right guy for the job,” Rounds said. “If he decides, and I think he will decide, to run for reelection … he’ll have good, solid support.”

The Thune-Trump conflict stems from Thune panning Trump’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and quipping that any challenges to the election would “go down like a shot dog” in the Senate. Trump responded that Thune would get a primary challenge and stumped for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) to jump in against him, but Noem demurred.

Given the small size of the state’s population, any challenger to Thune would start with a small following and an uphill climb unless Trump truly threw his weight into the race.

With Trump out of the picture, for now, Thune is enjoying his days helping lead the battle against President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on the Senate floor. Perhaps if that dynamic persists, the decision to run for reelection will get a lot easier for the genial South Dakotan.

“It’s a good feeling,” Thune said of working to counter Democrats instead of answering questions about Trump every day. “You have to play defense sometimes, but I’m much more comfortable playing offense.”

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Tanden withdrawal absolves Murkowski of difficult decision

Sen. Lisa Murkowski took her time deliberating the fate of Neera Tanden's bid to become White House budget chief. And while she mulled it over, the White House removed Tanden's nomination from purgatory.

The news that President Joe Biden withdrew Tanden's nomination, at Tanden's request, ground to a halt days of discussions between Murkowski and the White House over a potential path to save her nomination. As of Tuesday, the moderate Alaska Republican's vote was "fluid," said Senate Republican Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). Murkowski met with Tanden on Monday and said she has more follow-up questions.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and several swing-vote Republicans announced opposition to Tanden, in part because of her frequent Twitter attacks in the past, making Murkowski the deciding vote. It's clear that Tanden was not high on her prospects of winning over the Alaska Republican or a pair of undecided Senate Democrats.

"It now seems clear that there is no path forward to gain confirmation, and I do not want continued consideration of my nomination to be a distraction from your other priorities," Tanden said in a letter to Biden that came after the White House spent more than a week trying to salvage her nomination.

And though Murkowski never publicly stated how she would vote on Tanden before the withdrawal, Murkowski at a minimum asserted her importance in today's 50-50 Senate. Her long consideration of the nomination and dialogue with the Biden administration shows how critical Murkowski's vote will be in the months ahead in a narrowly divided Washington. Democrats will need 60 votes to most things, and Murkowski will be top of mind as they go forward.

Thune said Murkowski had bigger concerns about her home state as she weighed her vote on Tanden.

"She's got concerns about the economy in Alaska. And there are some policies that the administration has taken already that are very harmful to Alaska. And she's trying to have a conversation with them about things they can do to help improve the economic outlook," Thune said on Tuesday after visiting with Murkowski this week.

Murkowski said on Tuesday that she spent much of meeting with Tanden explaining her state's unique situation. The senator observed that Tanden is "not familiar with Alaska."

"I’m taking more of my free time and not so free time to ensure that everybody in this administration ... understands the economic situation, understands how the Alaska economy is situated right now," Murkowski said. She said she was not asking for any special accommodations for her or her state.


Neera Tanden testifies during a Senate Committee on the Budget hearing on Capitol Hill.

Murkowski spoke for a long period with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) on Monday evening; both have denounced the Biden administration's pause on new oil and gas exploration on federal lands. She's also spoken several times this week to Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden associate.

While Murkowski deliberated, the confirmation process for Tanden stalled. Committee votes on her nomination were postponed until there's at least a path to getting her 50 votes on the floor, with Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont undecided.

If Murkowski joined all 49 Democratic caucus members other than Manchin, Tanden's nomination could have in theory prevailed — and the Republican would have handed the Biden White House a major victory.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell encouraged his conference to stand together against Tanden, and Murkowski is up for reelection in 2022. McConnell is supporting her reelection bid, even after she voted to convict former President Donald Trump in his impeachment trial. Joining Biden and the Democrats would have amounted to a snub of the GOP leader.

What Biden could have given Murkowski in terms of her home state's energy industry is unclear. Backtracking on early moves to pause drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and temporarily halt new lease sales for oil and gas drilling on federal lands would mean breaking major campaign promises for Biden.

Murkowski noted in a January statement that while she supports moving toward “clean, sustainable energy” that “inhibiting Alaska’s resource development will only hamper our ability to recover” from the ongoing pandemic that has ravaged the state.

Marianne LeVine and Anthony Adragna contributed reporting.

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