In less than 48 hours the Senate Republicans will gather in an ornate room just off the chamber floor to hold their secretive internal caucus leadership elections. Though incredibly arcane to outsiders, these races are the congressional equivalent of papal elections -- intramural affairs that often define the future direction of a party.
This week's gathering is unlike regularly scheduled leadership elections, which are held every two years shortly after the midterm and presidential elections. But Sen. Trent Lott's decision to quit just one year into his six-year term has created an unusual mid-session opening at the leadership table. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) is now running unopposed to succeed Lott as minority whip, the No. 2 spot.
Kyl's ascension has set up a battle for the No. 3 post, Republican conference chairman, shaping up along generational, stylistic and ideological battle lines. This position is responsible for shaping the message for Senate Republicans, arranging press conferences and pushing GOP senators onto TV and radio talk shows. In the previous decade the post was held by smiling firebrands, former Sens. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), both of whom loved to take rhetorical jabs at Democrats.
Three different Republicans have jostled for votes: Lamar Alexander (
If Hutchison does stay out of the Conference chairman race, that means there will be no other leadership races, leaving her in place at Policy and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) in place at the No. 5 position of vice-chairman of the conference.
Considering the appeals made by the trio of candidates, Thursday's vote in the Mansfield Room may say a lot about Senate Republicans and how they view their life in the minority right now.