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John Barrasso foreign aid vote

John Barrasso charts his own path to power

Senate Republican Conference Chair John Barrasso was the only member of the GOP leadership who voted against the $95 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan on Tuesday.

This is a familiar position for the Wyoming Republican.

Throughout this Congress, Barrasso has opposed nearly all of the big-ticket items that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and top Republicans have tried to shepherd through the chamber.

That includes must-pass measures such as the Fiscal Responsibility Act — the debt-limit increase and two-year spending deal — and the FY2024 appropriations bills. Barrasso also publicly panned the bipartisan border deal that McConnell wanted to clinch in order to unlock Ukraine funding.

Yet Barrasso is running unopposed to be the GOP whip, a job that will require him to convince as much of the conference as possible to vote for or against a particular measure. To the extent that opposing his leadership on high-profile legislation and seeking the whip job are in conflict with each other, Barrasso doesn’t see it that way.

“It is what members want — to make sure that we have a consensus in the conference before bringing something to the floor,” Barrasso told us. “And the goal, of course, is to be in the majority to be doing that, not trying to find a minority to join a large number of Democrats.”

The 71-year-old Barrasso represents an increasingly hardline conservative faction of the Senate GOP conference. This group — which has grown dramatically during the Trump era — is demanding a bigger say in what happens within the conference, as well as less cooperation with Democrats. They’re more populist and purist, just like the GOP base, and they’re seeking a complete overhaul of the way the conference does business.

But as McConnell said earlier this week following the 79-18 vote on the foreign aid package, it’s often not that simple. McConnell is routinely forced to rely on a handful of GOP senators to join with nearly every Democrat on must-pass legislation. That’s anathema to conservatives, who believe Republican leaders should be guided exclusively by what the majority of the conference wants.

“If I viewed that as my responsibility, we would never raise the debt ceiling and we would never fund the government,” McConnell said. “I’ve been on the short side, among Republicans, on both of those issues… They don’t like to raise the debt ceiling, they don’t like to fund the government. But we have to do both.”

McConnell has extended that doctrine to legislation that isn’t considered “must-pass.” Just look at the first two years of Biden’s presidency. McConnell was instrumental in bringing along just enough Republicans to pass landmark legislation such as the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, the gun safety law and the CHIPS and Science Act.

Barrasso voted against all of those. And through his leadership campaign, Barrasso is making clear that he wants to chart a different course:

Zooming out: Barrasso, first appointed to the Senate in June 2007, is running for his third full term this November. Barrasso has chaired the Indian Affairs and Environment and Public Works committees, and he’s currently the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources panel.

An orthopedic surgeon before entering politics, Barrasso first joined the Republican leadership in 2010 as GOP conference vice chair. He served as Republican Policy Committee chair from 2012 to 2018 and then moved up to Republican Conference chair, the No. 3 post.

Messaging is an important part of Barrasso’s current job. At the weekly GOP leadership press conference, Barrasso frequently begins his remarks with the words “Joe Biden” or “the Democrats” as he tries to highlight everything from the economy to energy to foreign policy that he believes are being mishandled.

Barrasso voted against the foreign aid package not because he opposes the bill on its own, but because it didn’t include any provisions to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. This, of course, was the GOP leadership’s message for months — no foreign aid without border security. Barrasso was the only one to stick with that to the end.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who chairs the Energy Committee and works closely with Barrasso, said he understands when his GOP counterpart is pushing a partisan position and when he’s being conciliatory. Manchin called Barrasso his “partner” in running the panel but acknowledged that the Wyoming Republican is also “hyper-partisan” at times.

“John is strong, he’s tough. You know where he comes from, you know what he represents. He’s all Wyoming, and that’s what we’re supposed to be,” Manchin said.

Manchin, however, added that Hill Republicans are in a difficult position due to Trump’s grip on the party. When we noted that Barrasso lines up with Trump on virtually all of these issues, Manchin offered this thought:

“Well, you know, leadership changes people sometimes.”

— Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan

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