Thune flexes muscle in shadow Senate GOP leadership race
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) is asserting himself in the Senate GOP’s raucous debate over how to avoid a government shutdown, showcasing his ability to lead ahead of any future race to succeed Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Republican senators say the quiet jockeying among the “three Johns” in the mix to succeed McConnell whenever he leaves office is heating up behind the scenes.
Thune, 62, is using his position as the No. 2 Senate Republican to maximum effect to show he can solve problems and get fellow GOP senators on the same page, according to lawmakers who’ve noticed his recent efforts.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) are also viewed as top candidates to become the next Senate Republican leader.
None of the three are overtly campaigning for the top job, but they are making moves to showcase their talents to colleagues, say GOP senators and strategists.
McConnell, 81, is spearheading the Republican effort to recapture the Senate and appears intent on serving again as majority leader. He raised $50 million in August through two aligned outside groups for Senate Republican candidates.
But Thune’s power and influence in the Senate GOP conference is on the rise.
Republicans said that Thune on Wednesday broke the logjam holding up the stalled minibus appropriations package by urging Republican colleagues to drop their holds on the package funding military construction and the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.
“I think he’s trying to manage all the cats, because when we’re talking, he’s equally frustrated” with the objections that fellow Republican senators have lodged against moving forward with appropriations bills, said one GOP senator who attended the Wednesday lunch meeting.
“We know we have 12 bills we have to get through, and we’re stopping it with all these holds. There’s nobody else to blame,” the lawmaker said.
“Thune called it out. He got angry,” the source added.
The minibus funding package had been stalled on the floor since mid-September because of Republican objections to the bill, even though Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) had promised to let Republicans offer a range of amendments to the bill.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) initially held it up, demanding that it be broken into three parts. But after Johnson’s concerns were resolved, other conservatives stepped up to block the bill from advancing.
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) were among the senators who placed holds on the legislation, which threatened to cause a pileup of spending bills later in the year.
Thune told his GOP colleagues at Wednesday’s lunch that the holds were gumming up the regular order of bringing spending bills to the floor and frustrating their own stated desire to avoid having to vote on a massive omnibus package before Christmas containing all of the spending legislation.
Thune warned at a press conference right after the lunch that “if we don’t get the appropriations process going here, we’re just not going to get any of these bills done before the end of the year, and we’re going to end up in a terrible position at the end of the year.”
Cruz wanted a vote on his amendment to stop Ann Carlson, the acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, from continuing to get paid after she withdrew her nomination from Senate consideration.
Carlson has been able to continue collecting a federal salary because the White House withdrew her nomination before she received a floor vote.
Hawley — who had the last hold on the minibus package, according to multiple sources — wanted a vote on his amendment to cap credit card interest rates at 18 percent.
Thune got Hawley to release his hold by pledging to help him get a vote on his Capping Credit Card Interest Rates Act later this year, according to a person familiar with the negotiation.
By the end of the day, the holds were cleared up and the bill was ready to move forward.
Now Thune and Schumer need to finalize the final consent agreement to move forward on amendments.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) says she’s optimistic the Senate can now make progress on the stalled appropriations package.
“I hope we can clear this first one. I think that’s going to be an important benchmark,” she said. “I’m hearing that it’s got some blue sky there, so it’s tentatively going in the right way.”
Thune has pretty much taken over the day-to-day operation of the Senate floor since McConnell suffered a concussion and cracked rib in March, which caused him to miss a month of work at the Capitol.
The No. 2 Senate Republican leader has showcased his influence in other ways.
Over the weekend, he played a key role in setting the Senate Republican strategy on what to do about the bipartisan Senate stopgap funding measure that included $6 billion in new money for Ukraine.
Thune at a pivotal meeting Saturday sided with Johnson and other Senate conservatives who wanted to delay a vote on the Senate bill, which Schumer and McConnell negotiated, to see if the House could pass a 48-day funding measure that included $16 billion for disaster relief but no new money for Ukraine.
Once Thune made his preference known, it rapidly became the consensus view of the Senate GOP conference, and McConnell also voiced his preference for waiting to see if the House could pass a continuing resolution, even though he supported passing a bill that included money for Ukraine.
“We asked [Thune], ‘Will he be our spokesman?’ He agreed, but then McConnell decided he’d” be the spokesman to announce that Senate Republicans want to wait for the House to act first on a stopgap spending measure, Johnson later recounted to The Hill.
GOP senators say that Thune’s willingness to endorse Johnson’s call for a pause on the Senate bill set the wheels in motion.
Senate Republican aides, however, emphasized that Thune is working in close coordination with McConnell and his team.
When asked earlier this year about his own leadership ambitions, Thune said he is only focused on the needs of the Senate Republican team and any talk about a future leadership race is putting “the cart before the horse,” as McConnell hasn’t signaled any intention to retire before his term ends in January of 2027.