A day after losing Ted Stevens’ seat, along with their best hope for getting Joe Lieberman to cross over, Senate GOP leaders preached party unity as the key to surviving the Obama years.
If that doesn’t work, there’s always psychotherapy.
Down to 42 seats with two still at risk, Senate Republicans are in a deep funk. Some are in denial. Some want a return to conservative principles. Some want to cut deals. Some want more filibusters.
Others want to jump out a window — but they’re afraid they’d screw that up, too.
“We probably wouldn’t die,” a Republican Senate aide joked Wednesday. “We’d just lie there, hurt and suffering, which is not too much different from where we are now.”
Two years ago, the Republicans held a 55-45 majority. They’re down 13 seats since then, with a too-close-to-call race in Minnesota and a runoff in Georgia still to come.
“The feeling I get is that we’re not ready yet to discuss with ourselves what happened,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, one of the few Republicans to win an easy reelection this year. “I think people are kind of still a bit stunned and are not prepared to have thought it through sufficiently.”
“We think the whole problem is George Bush and not us, and we’re part of the problem,” added Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina.
Although Republicans aren’t exactly anxious to align themselves with the outgoing president, they’re feeling so nostalgic for the power they once had that they’ve scheduled their committee organizing meetings for mid-December — an excuse to be back in town for Bush’s final White House holiday party.
John McCain — the Republican senator who had hoped to be hosting those parties for the next four years — returned to the Senate this week. He said Tuesday that he had nothing to say to the press. When reporters asked him for a comment on Wednesday, he said “No, no, no!” and kept walking.
The Republicans’ only glimmer of good news: When Stevens — the longest-serving Republican in Senate history — conceded his Alaska race to Democrat Mark Begich on Wednesday, he spared them the unpleasant task of having to expel him from their caucus.
That there is no simple solution for what ails the party is clear from the number of solutions offered to fix it. Ask a room of Senate Republicans what’s next for their diminished and deflated minority, and you’ll get a different answer from each of them.
During a closed-door Republican Conference meeting on Tuesday, DeMint offered proposals to impose term limits on the Republican leader and to restrict how long members can serve on the Appropriations Committee. The resolutions were soundly defeated, but not without bitter exchanges among the Republicans present for the meeting.
Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida said the meeting was “terrible” and “caused consternation” among his colleagues because of the dispute over DeMint’s proposals.
GOP senators met behind closed doors again on Wednesday and did a quick review of their races, with the leadership and defeated incumbents blaming Republican losses on the economic downturn and the president’s call for a $700 billion economic rescue plan.
But even this session brought a clash between GOP lawmakers, as Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana and Kit Bond of Missouri fought over whether Republicans should support a bailout of the auto industry, with Bond supporting it and Vitter opposed.
“Sometimes people don’t like change, but after two disastrous elections, we need it,” DeMint said. “We need to be who we say we are. The most important thing for the party is to mean something again.”
Retiring Sen. John Warner of Virginia — who will be succeeded next year by a Democrat, former Gov. Mark Warner — tried to lighten the mood Wednesday with some gallows humor.
Warner told of how he had gone to a straw poll in Virginia with McCain. Warner made a strong pitch for McCain at the event and figured he’d seal the deal by offering to pay for lunch for the whole crowd. When the voting was over, Texas Rep. Ron Paul had won.
“It was a really funny moment, but still kind of sad because it was true,” noted one senator.
So far, GOP leaders have remained upbeat. They point out that after the 2004 elections, Republicans held the White House and picked up seats in the House and Senate.
The leadership points to this as proof it can be done, and done quickly.
“You play the hand you’re dealt,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, who is now vice chairman of the Republican Conference. “We’re not happy to be where we are, but we are where we are. Now you have to determine how you get back on top.”
Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, the outgoing NRSC chairman, said victories in the Georgia runoff and Minnesota recount, which Sen. Norm Coleman leads by 215 votes over Democratic challenger Al Franken, could help ease the pain by keeping Democrats from reaching a 60-vote, filibuster-resistant majority.
“Obviously, we were very disappointed by [the] Election Night results. Believe me, we put our heart and soul into this last two years,” Ensign said. Georgia and Minnesota “are absolutely the two that we feel like we have to hold onto to basically take away a good feeling from this cycle.”
But first, the Republicans will have to say goodbye to their own. On Wednesday night, just off the Senate floor, Republicans planned to gather in tribute to their retiring and defeated colleagues.
It’s a longer-than-usual list this year, and it includes Stevens, Warner, Pete V. Domenici, Elizabeth Dole, Wayne Allard, Gordon Smith, John Sununu, Larry Craig and Chuck Hagel.
“This causes a lot of pain,” said Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson. “There are a lot of good people there. We’re going to miss them all.”