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Mike Lee provokes leadership showdown

Mike Lee isn’t backing down.

The Utah senator faces a perilous path to getting the No. 4 job in Republican Party leadership that he covets: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argues that internal party rules dictate that Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming can serve in the job until 2018. And there’s substantial wariness within the caucus about an intraparty feud over future leadership elections, particularly while the GOP is pressing to hang on to its majority.

Lee’s gambit also could disrupt the unity within the party fostered by its stance against the president’s Supreme Court nomination — and further the senator’s reputation as a conservative bomb-thrower.

But Lee is pressing his case, insisting that the position of Republican Policy Committee chairman is wide open for 2017.

“I have no interest running against John Barrasso for this or anything else. I am interested in running for the open-seat Republican Policy chair,” Lee said in an interview on Wednesday.

That Lee believes the seat is still open is a direct challenge to McConnell, who brought Republican Secretary Laura Dove into the Tuesday caucus lunch to explain that Barrasso is eligible for another two-year term. But if Lee wins the argument, he’d imperil three-fifths of the leadership team: Barrasso, Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota and Conference Vice Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri all took their jobs in late 2011.

The crux of Lee’s latest challenge to the GOP’s status quo is that McConnell is wrong to say that GOP precedent allows those leaders to serve until 2018. McConnell and Dove argue that the trio’s partial term does not count toward a term limit of three, two-year terms, citing former Sen. Don Nickles’ time serving as party whip for more than six years from 1996 until 2003.

Lee sees things differently.

“The rules are very clear; they’ve never been violated in a way that undermines or contradicts the plain language of the rule,” Lee said Wednesday. Of Dove’s examples, he said: “I completely disagree with it. The examples that she provided are not on point at all.”

The rule that both are citing dictates that “The term of office of all party officers herein provided shall extend for not more than two years, and shall expire at the close of each Congress … a Senator shall serve no more than three terms in any elected party leadership position other than Floor Leader or President Pro Tempore.”

Senate Republicans make their own rules, but senators said there’s little enthusiasm for thrusting the party into a discussion about arcane internal issues. But some Republicans said they expect a conference meeting to be held to discuss the matter, perhaps in the coming weeks, if only to take the cloud of uncertainty off of party leaders.

To get that meeting, five senators must request a conference gathering. Then things get tougher: First, Lee must sway his colleagues to agree that party rules stipulate that Barrasso, Blunt and Thune are all term-limited. And after that, he’d have to win a leadership election, which would take place sometime after the November Senate races are resolved.

But party bosses seem to already have grown tired of the issue just two days after Lee announced his run.

“Sounds like it’s been resolved,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the GOP whip. “The conference could change those rules if we chose to do so … we’re the ones who write ’em. So it’s up to the conference.”

Even if the seat is open, Lee would not be able to waltz into a leadership job. Several Republicans said he’d be an underdog in any leadership election because of his role in the 2013 government shutdown and his association with conservative groups that annoy GOP senators.

“Let’s say there was a slot open. I can’t imagine him actually being elected to it, unless no one else wanted to run,” one Republican senator said on Wednesday.

But Lee’s challenge offers a wider-lens view of the still simmering ideological conflicts in the party. The caucus is getting younger following an influx of new senators after the 2014 elections, and conservatives may chafe if much of the leadership team looks the same in 2018 as it did in 2011.

A messy leadership fight could also disrupt the relative ideological peace within the conference, bolstered lately by the Supreme Court showdown. That’s especially so if it drags out into the fall elections.

Sources on the Hill said conservative groups are throwing their weight behind Lee in private meetings, but his challenge to party infrastructure is not a hot topic in the conference. After Tuesday’s discussion, there was no talk about the intraparty feud in the Wednesday lunch, which is organized by Lee in his capacity as Steering Committee chairman, one GOP senator said.

Yet Lee is pressing on. He was scheduled to speak to Sen. Marco Rubio about the matter on Wednesday and has been calling GOP colleagues over the past week to gauge their interest in his run. One potential ally, GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz, has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

“I’m going to need to continue to discuss this as a conference if we don’t follow the rule. And that’s what we would have to do in order for Sen. Barrasso to continue to hold this position,” Lee said.

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