GOP acrimony spills over at heated Senate lunch

Senate Republicans let their fury and frustration out at one another during a lengthy closed-door meeting that revealed the bitter feelings left over from a crushingly disappointing midterm election.

An at-times nasty and personal discussion took place at the Senate GOP lunch, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who have been at odds for months, traded recriminations over who was to blame for the GOP’s failure to win back the Senate.

The biggest fireworks came after McConnell stood up at one point in the meeting and observed that while he heard a lot of criticism of his leadership style, no one had yet announced any plan to challenge him for the job of Republican leader.

Scott, the chairman of the Senate campaign arm, then interjected to say that he planned to challenge McConnell at Wednesday morning’s leadership election, catching many of his GOP colleagues by surprise, according to a Republican source familiar with the conversation in the room.

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McConnell quickly cut Scott off, telling him to wait his turn to speak. Then things really got heated.

McConnell accused Scott of mismanaging his job at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and of mischaracterizing the record of the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC affiliated with McConnell that poured tens of millions of dollars in a slew of key races, according to the source familiar with the confrontational exchange.

Scott then heatedly criticized McConnell for not putting out an agenda before the election and keeping his own leadership team in the dark.

“I’ve never seen Scott so fired up. It was a very impassioned, very direct confrontation with McConnell that McConnell did not expect,” said another person who witnessed the tense back-and-forth between senators. “It started off tense and it got very acrimonious.”

Scott’s comment didn’t sit well with Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), however, who pushed back hard, according to sources familiar with the conversation.

It got personal as Thune, who defended McConnell, made it clear he didn’t appreciate Scott second-guessing whether the rest of the GOP leadership team is fully looped-in on strategy.

Scott, who predicted last month that Republicans would control between 52 and 55 Senate seats next year, was criticized by McConnell’s allies for his fundraising record as NRSC chair.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said the Senate Republican campaign arm wasted money, its digital effort wasted money, the committee didn’t spend enough on independent expenditures and praised McConnell for raising huge amounts of money for Senate GOP incumbents and challengers, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

Collins also pointed out that while Scott is now supporting calls to delay the Senate Republican leadership election, he was happy to be elected chair of the NRSC immediately after the 2020 election, when the rest of the current GOP leadership team was also elected.

At the time — in November of 2020 — future control of the Senate was in question as then-Sens. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) were facing runoff elections in Georgia the following January. Both senators wound up losing reelection.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who supports delaying the Senate leadership election until next month, said after the meeting “we had as vigorous, substantive debate on the question of leadership as I’ve ever seen in the Senate.”

“It’s the first time really we’ve had that debate so I’m glad of that. I hope it continues and I believe it should continue for the next month,” he said.

Cruz did not say whether he would vote for McConnell or Scott as leader.

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said he and several other senators criticized McConnell for playing too much defense against Democrats and not doing more to lay out an agenda for how Republicans would govern if in power.

“I’ve been convinced all along that if we want to do better in the elections, from the presidential [to] especially the swing-state Senate races, we’ve got to have a plan for the American public and if we don’t we can expect more of the same,” Braun told reporters after the meeting, referring to the Senate leadership’s decision not to lay out a comprehensive governing agenda before Election Day.

Other senators defended McConnell and blamed the disappointing election on Scott’s management of the NRSC or former President Trump’s influence on races.

Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa), who is running for Senate Republican Policy Committee chair, the position being vacated by retiring Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said she thought McConnell did a good job, according to a person in the room.

When Ernst stood up to make her case for why she deserves a promotion in the leadership, she explained to colleagues that she has thought about the move for months.

“So that is not a knee-jerk reaction for me or a vendetta against someone else — [I] have put a lot of time, thought and energy into [this] and I appreciate the opportunity to serve as your vice chair,” she said, referring to her current job as vice chairwoman of the Senate GOP conference. “I’m ready to move into a new position.”

Some senators interpreted Ernst’s comment that her bid for a higher leadership position was not a “vendetta against someone else” as a subtle jab at Scott’s motivations for challenging McConnell.

A person familiar with Ernst’s thinking, however, said the choice of the word “vendetta” was not aimed at Scott.

Scott laid out his case to become next Senate GOP leader in a three-page “Dear Colleague” letter circulated Tuesday.

“I believe it’s time for the Senate Republican Conference to be far more bold and resolute that we have been in the past. We must start saying what we are for, not just what we are against,” he wrote.

He promised that if elected leader he would “never surprise you with legislation and ask that you vote on something you haven’t had an opportunity to review.”

He also pledged “to always work to be transparent with each of you and to bring the conference together” and to “lead the conference in developing a positive, aspirational agenda that outlines our legislative goals and what Senate Republicans stand for.”

“I humbly ask for your vote as your next Republican Leader,” he concluded.

Scott had contemplated announcing his leadership bid last week but decided not to after Republicans failed to capture the Senate majority on Election Day.

But Scott gained more momentum over the past week after a group of Senate Republican conservatives including Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Cruz called for the leadership elections to be postponed until after the Georgia Senate runoff on Dec. 6.

Scott made no mention of his plans to challenge McConnell when he attended the Monday afternoon leadership meeting, which is held on weekly basis when Congress is in session in McConnell’s office.

Blunt, a member of the GOP leadership team, predicted the motion to postpone the leadership election would fail and McConnell would be reelected as Senate GOP leader.

Al Weaver contributed to this report.  

This story was updated at 6:54 p.m.

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