Exiting GOP Old Guard in Senate Jeopardizes Deals With Biden

  • Five senior Republicans decline to run for re-election in 2022
  • Replacements may be less inclined to legislative compromise

President Joe Biden’s window to strike deals with Senate institutionalists who practiced traditional deal-making is steadily narrowing as more veterans prepare to head for the exits.

As Biden starts a push to enact ambitious plans to invest $4 billion into the nation’s infrastructure, Republicans known for negotiating large bipartisan spending agreements are entering the homestretch of their Senate careers. Five have already said they won’t seek re-election in 2022.

Veteran congressional watchers say the planned departures of GOP Sens. Richard Shelby (Ala.), Roy Blunt (Mo.), Rob Portman (Ohio), Richard Burr (N.C.), and Pat Toomey(Pa.) signal a continuing shift away from the kind of lawmakers who have long cobbled together bipartisan deals. Likely to take their place are hardliners less inclined to work with Democrats on expansive legislation, they said.

“When you’re losing those kinds of senators in the Republican Party, you’re faced with primaries that will be extremely contentious and very conservative,” Wendy Schiller, a political expert at Brown University, said in an interview. “What you’ll see is that the Republicans, if they hold the seats, will be a much more rigidly, ideologically conservative party and much more difficult to deal with in terms of compromise.”

The retirements follow those in January of other senior senators, including Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who long chaired the Agriculture and the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committees, respectively.

Photographer: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) joins a number of senior Republicans who have opted to retire.

Experts said whoever replaces Shelby, a former chair of Appropriations and three other committees who will turn 87 next month, will be from an entirely different mold. Shelby, they said, reflected a time with traditions of bipartisan work. Last year he played a big role in developing five emergency Covid-19 relief bills as well as a massive omnibus spending package. A former House member elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 1986, Shelby was part of a group of moderate southerners known as Boll Weevils before joining the Republican Party in 1994.

“You’re not going to get another Richard Shelby in Alabama,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist. “There just isn’t any. Whoever replaces Shelby will be a Trump Republican and will not be the kind of Appropriations Committee deal-maker that Shelby was.” One Republican seeking to replace Shelby is Rep. Mo Brooks, who was a leading defender of Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results.

These retiring Republicans hold positions of clout in a chamber where it often takes decades to attain seniority. Toomey announced his decision to retire even as he ascended to the top Republican slot at the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee. Burr recently gained the ranking slot at HELP, and Portman is the senior Republican at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Other veteran Republicans could also retire next year, including Sens. Chuck Grassley, the 87-year-old Iowan who’s chaired several influential committees, and John Thune (S.D.), one of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell‘s (Ky.) top lieutenants who recently sent mixed signals when asked whether he’s running.

Downplaying Changes

Republicans are downplaying the changes. Blunt, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees labor and health programs, including vaccine development, will have a big role as Biden’s infrastructure plans move through Congress.

“My colleagues who are leaving the Senate have continued to do really good work here,” Blunt said in an interview. “I think other people also will step up. Some will be replacing us, others will be people who suddenly realize there are some things that used to get done that they didn’t necessarily involve themselves in and they will begin to do so.”

The retirements won’t in all cases result in a huge shift. While Shelby’s successor in Alabama could be a far different legislator, his expected replacement as the top Republican on Appropriations is Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), a moderate who sometimes votes with Democrats.

One wild card is McConnell, who worked with Biden on many bipartisan initiatives as Senate colleagues and could opt to leave if the GOP doesn’t retake the Senate in 2022. The issue gained traction after McConnell backed legislation allowing Kentucky’s party leaders instead of the governor to pick a successor if a Senate vacancy occurs. McConnell told reporters as Biden unveiled his infrastructure plans he has no plans to resign early after winning another term last year.

“People will come and go and hopefully the institution will continue to thrive,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in an interview. “But it is one of the hardest things for members of Congress to think about: What is the right time to leave? Some come and serve one term and others stay for forever. Until they get carried out.”

Stepping Up

It’s not yet clear who will step in to replace the old guard.

Outspoken firebrands such as Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Ted Cruz(R-Texas), and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) are competing to become party stars but eventually will be away pursuing the presidency, Schiller said. It falls to others to lead day-to-day work, she said.

Baker listed Thune and Cornyn, McConnell’s former deputy, along with Sens. Todd Young (R-Ind.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), and John Boozman (R-Ark.) as potential deal-makers.

Schiller said Republican women gaining influence include Sens. Marsha Blackburn(R-Tenn.), who’s popular with conservative hardliners, and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a lawmaker with bipartisan inclinations who’s drawn a GOP opponent because of her vote to convict Trump after his impeachment trial for inciting the insurrection at the Capitol.

Photographer: Ting Shen/Bloomberg
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a conservative hardliner, is one of a number of GOP senators gaining influence.

On the Democratic side, Baker said Sen. Chris Coons (Del.) is a go-between for deals with Biden while Joe Manchin (W.V.) is a Senate “unicorn” who works with both sides.

“I think anybody who can manage that tightrope walk he has in West Virginia is really just a master of his trade,” Baker said. “He’s in an incredibly strong position.”

The 2022 election is already shaping up as a test for whether a new breed of Republicans — less tradition-bound and allied with Trump — will be the future of the Senate.

In Missouri, for example, one of the Republicans seeking to replace Blunt is former Gov. Eric Greitens, who has strong support among Trump backers. Greitens, however, was forced to resign the governorship amid scandal, and his potential nomination could provide an opening for Democrats.

“The parties will go in different directions,” Schiller said. “The Republicans will go much more ideologically conservative, especially in Missouri and Alabama. If Democrats can hold on it will require them to win at least one or two [seats] in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and in that case the only candidates who can win will be more moderate.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com