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  /  News   /  Race to replace McConnell heats up over response to Democratic ‘show’ votes

Race to replace McConnell heats up over response to Democratic ‘show’ votes

The race to become next Senate Republican leader is heating up as GOP senators are divided over how to counter Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) messaging offensive on women’s reproductive rights, a top issue in the 2024 election.

The debate over floor strategy has become an opportunity for the GOP senators running to replace Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to showcase their leadership and strategic skills within the Republican conference.

Senate Republicans face a tough decision next week, when Schumer will force them to vote on a bill to protect access to in vitro fertilization that has been written in a way that few if any GOP lawmakers could support without significant changes.

Schumer is bringing the bill to the floor even though he knows Republicans oppose it so that Democrats can portray Republicans as extreme on women’s health issues and to highlight the ramifications of the Supreme Court overturning the national right to abortion in 2022.  

He used the same tactic earlier this week when he forced a vote on advancing the Right to Contraception Act. That bill is sponsored by Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Republicans said it’s full of poison-pill provisions.

It failed 51 to 39 with only two Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) voting with Democrats to allow the bill to move forward.

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), who is viewed as the early frontrunner to become next leader, has argued to colleagues that Republicans should block the Democratic bills from even coming up for debate on the floor.

He says that voting to begin debates on these bills still wouldn’t guarantee Senate Republicans a chance to amend them. He argues that doing so would only drag out the process and allow Democrats to inflict maximum political damage, according to GOP senators.

“These are show votes. We’ve seen show votes before and historically the practice on show votes is to vote against show votes and to call t hem what they are,” said a Senate Republican aide familiar with the internal debate. “The history on show votes is to call them what they are, point out that they are political votes that are not designed to become law.”

Thune is expected to argue again next week that Senate Republicans should block a motion to proceed to a debate on the Democrats’ IVF legislation.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who is also running for McConnell’s job, however, is criticizing the Senate GOP leadership for not putting together a plan to give Republican senators the option of voting to begin floor debate armed with a clearly defined strategy to counter message.

“We know [Schumer] is going to have these show votes. We know he’s going to do contraception, we know he’s going to do IVF. What I think’s important is we all get on page on what our message is,” Scott told The Hill in an interview Thursday.

“It’s important not just to say they’re wrong, we should say what are we for. So you can do it in a variety of ways. You can do bills, you can do amendments, you can do resolutions,  you can do statements, you can do all these things,” he said. “We ought to get get out in front of it and do it in a unified manner, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scott has introduced a resolution expressing support for Americans starting families through in vitro fertilization.

It encourages clinical research to improve outcomes for parents seeking to overcome infertility and supports state legislative and regulatory actions to establish safety and ethical standards for medical facilities offering IVF treatments.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a third candidate in the race to succeed McConnell, is urging his colleagues to stick together and vote as a group, whatever path they decide to take. His comments have been interpreted by some GOP senators as siding with colleagues who want to engage in a floor debate over women’s reproductive rights and attempt to amend the Democratic bills.

At a Senate Republican lunch meeting Tuesday, Collins, a prominent Republican moderate urged colleagues to vote to begin debate on the Right to Contraception Act, arguing it would give Republicans a chance to offer their own amendments and portray the Democratic bill as extreme, according to senators familiar with the meeting.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), an outspoken conservative, agreed with Collins at that meeting and endorsed the idea of voting to begin the debate so Republicans would have a chance to present amendments and call for them to receive votes on the floor.

“We’re completely flatfooted on this contraceptive bill. We had that discussion at lunch,” Johnson told The Hill. “Susan Collins said, ‘Why don’t we get on this bill and then let’s just point out all the flaws.’ I said that makes sense to me but it has to be a coordinated effort.

“We need leadership here,” he said. “Let’s get on the bill, let’s offer amendments that highlight these abuses and then when those amendments fail or don’t even get voted on, then we take the bill down.”

Johnson cited problems he saw in the Democratic bill, such as an overly broad definition of contraception and what he called “attacks on religious liberty.”

He said Republicans had no chance to have a substantive floor debate because Senate GOP leaders didn’t put together a plan to counterattack.

“That would have been my approach but that would require leadership and our leadership is completely mute on this,” he said, referring to the fact that McConnell said little about how to proceed and left the floor strategy to Thune.

Johnson said he wasn’t happy with Thune’s advice to vote against debating the bill at the outset because it lets Democrats claim Republicans don’t support protecting contraception rights.

“It will provide Democrats with a win here,” he said of Thune’s strategy.

Johnson predicted that most media coverage of the Senate vote would highlight Republican opposition to the contraception bill and most Americans would miss the nuances of the policy debate.

Cornyn didn’t endorse a course of action when he spoke at the same lunch meeting but he said getting on the bill would be an option only if the entire GOP conference held hands and voted together to begin debate, according to a source familiar with the discussion.

Some Republicans complained privately about Cornyn’s approach to the issue.

One Republican senator who requested anonymity said that Cornyn’s openness to voting to begin debate the Right to Contraception Act shows he’s “out of touch” with pro-life voters.

“It shows how out of touch John Cornyn is with conservatives and pro-life [voters.] Cornyn is forcefully advocating to vote yes on this bill,” said the GOP senator. “This would mandate that sterilization drugs be available for minors. This would mandate mifepristone in every state. That’s just insane.

“He was like, ‘We should get on this bill.’ It was Thune who then stood up and said, ‘We won’t get any amendment votes. Do we want to spend weeks talking about contraception?’” the senator said.

“Cornyn needs conservative votes to get elected leader, clearly…. I don’t know how he’s going to get it,” the source said, describing conservatives in the room as “wide-eyed” after Cornyn spoke.

A source familiar with the discussion pushed back on that characterization on the meeting by saying Cornyn wasn’t debating Thune over strategy. The source said the Texas senator only raised a point on the importance of unity for the conference to think about.

So far, Thune is winning the debate on floor strategy as the majority of the Senate GOP conference voted with him Wednesday to block the motion to advance the contraception legislation.

A second Senate GOP senator who requested anonymity said the differing views Thune and Cornyn presented to the GOP conference on floor strategy “did strike me” as jockeying for the top leadership job.

The senator said Cornyn “was saying that we might have a chance to really reshape something here so it reflects our voices to.”

“I just looked at the votes, and the only person to vote for it so far was Susan,” the source said as the vote was wrapping up.

The senator said Thune has an advantage in the race as the current whip.

“It’s like being an incumbent,” the source added.