Tillis pushes back on conservatives’ bid for GOP rules reform

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), an adviser to the Senate Republican leadership team, has circulated a letter to colleagues pushing back on conservative lawmakers who want to reform the GOP conference rules to take power away from the Republican leader.

Senate conservatives led by Sens. Mike Lee (Utah), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Rick Scott (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) want to reform the GOP conference rules to shift power away from the leader, hoping to take advantage of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) decision to step down from leadership at the end of the year.

One of their top reforms is to limit the next leader to six years in office, something that McConnell says would be a bad idea.

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), who is running to succeed McConnell, hasn’t yet endorsed a term limit for the next leader, but two of his rivals for the top job — Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Scott — are backing the idea.

Tillis, the former Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, who came to the Senate in 2016, is now pushing back on calls to limit the next leader’s power.

He wrote in his letter to colleagues that it’s “so important that we consider proposals to strengthen not weaken the Republican conference leader position.”

And Tillis, a former management consultant, has suggested that Republicans take a look at the Senate Democratic conference rules to get a few ideas about how to increase party unity, if they want to move toward that goal.

He noted that after a bipartisan bill to address gun violence passed the Senate in 2022, some Republican colleagues complained “the Democrats would never do that” because “they stay unified.”

“If the goal is to enhance more of that kind of discipline among us, then weakening the leader would be counter-productive. So, as we are considering these things, let’s bear the goal and the consequences of changes in mind,” he advised.

He pointed out that the Senate Democratic conference, which usually acts more in lockstep with its leader than the Senate GOP conference, “has no treatment for term limits.”

And he noted that none of the four party conferences in the Senate and House currently limit the tenure of its top leader.

He reminded colleagues that when the Senate GOP conference voted on term limits for its top leader in 1995 and 2008, it rejected the idea both times.

“Having term limits on the leader could make the political side of the job more difficult,” he warned. “I’m in the no-need-for-term-limits camp because we get to pick a leader every two years, and I’m not convinced incumbency by itself provides much of an advantage in a leadership election.”

McConnell, who became Senate Republican leader in 2007, only faced a leadership challenge once during his more than 17 years in the top job. That happened after the 2022 midterm election when Scott ran against him but lost by a vote of 36-10.

Tillis also argued if fellow GOP senators are calling to place a term limit on the Senate Republican leader, then they should also look at more restrictive term limits for committee chairs and ranking members.

He notes in his letter that senators with decades of seniority on multiple committees, such as Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), can jump around to serve as the chair or ranking member of various committees once they hit a term limit for a specific panel.

Grassley, for example, who is 90 years old, chaired the Senate Finance Committee for years before jumping over to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, and now serves as the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee.

“If we move forward with term limits for our leader, then I think we need to rethink all of our term limits for both the elected leadership positions and the committee chairs,” he wrote.

“Some will say that committee chairs already have term limits, but I do not agree. Once you become a chair, it’s simply a matter of which committee you are going to chair not whether you will be a chair in the future,” he argued.

He observed that Grassley has been either the chair or ranking member of a committee for nearly 30 years — or “six years longer than Mitch has been the leader.”

Tillis highlighted for GOP colleagues that the Senate Democratic leader has more power than his Republican counterpart in several areas.

For example, the Republican leader has the authority to pick half plus one of any open committee slots while the Democratic leader has the power to fill all open committee slots.

“Expanding the leader’s authority to be in alignment [with] the Democrat leader could empower the leader to position members on committees most likely to carry the agenda of the majority of the conference forward,” he suggested.

Tillis also reminded his Senate GOP colleagues that unlike in the Senate Republican Conference, the Democratic leader serves as the chair of the conference and presides over all conference meetings and lunches.

“Everyone except the leader has a time limit of 3 minutes or less to speak,” he said of the Democrats. “We could consider having a similar model or, at a minimum, adopt the time limits and reorient the lunches so that the leader sets the agenda and delegates to whip, conference leader, et al to preside.”

That proposal seemed aimed at Lee and Johnson, in particular. Lee presides over the weekly Senate Republican lunch as the chair of the Steering Committee. And Johnson is known for speaking at length during lunch meetings.

Tillis noted that the Senate Democratic leader appoints the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a selection then ratified by the rest of the Democratic conference, while the Senate GOP conference rules now leave it up to individual senators to run to become the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).

“Having the leader nominate the NRSC chair subject to conference ratification could make it more likely the NRSC chair will be in alignment with the priorities of the Republican leader and reduce the risk of conflicts in messaging and priorities,” he wrote. That reform seems aimed at Scott, who clashed with McConnell over messaging and fundraising strategy, when he served as chair of the Senate Republican campaign arm in the 2022 midterms.

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