Why Senate conservatives are taking a populist turn

During the Obama years, conservatives were all about forcing fodder for the national GOP base onto the Senate’s legislative fights. Recall former Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) push to throw Congress onto the Affordable Care Act exchanges, former Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) bid to exempt employers from Obamacare’s contraception coverage mandate — and, of course, the entire bid to defund the health care law.

But the new class on the Senate’s right flank has a different strategy. Take Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), for instance; he’s working with an unusual bipartisan coalition to go after credit card swipe fees, stirring up massive corporate opposition in the process. He wants the GOP to be known for more populist policy causes.

“This is a sign of who the new Republican Party is,” Marshall said. “We’re the party for hard-working Americans, and we’re not the party, necessarily, of Wall Street.”

He’s tried to attach his swipe fees plan to pretty much everything that moves in the Senate, including the recently-passed FAA law — to no avail so far. But his move isn’t the only reorientation among conservatives toward a smaller-scale, more activist approach to using their leverage.

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) tried to use the FAA bill to extend the expired Affordable Connectivity Program that helps lower-income Americans with Internet costs, introducing an amendment with Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) to pour billions of dollars into the program. He’s currently balancing that move with another bipartisan push for the railroad safety bill he wrote with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

“We’re going to keep on fighting for it and working on it. Obviously, rail is a bigger priority for me, and I think we’re going to have a vote on rail,” Vance said. “Sometimes when you care about something you have to put your foot down and say: I’m going to make it painful.”

A co-sponsor of that rail bill, Seh. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), tangled on the Senate floor this week with his own party over another bill that has nothing to do with cutting government or the culture wars: The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Hawley, Vance and Marshall are all in their first terms, making them good bellwethers for the Senate GOP’s future direction on policy.

Hawley and his radiation compensation allies have tried to stick an expansion of the program onto pretty much anything moving through Congress. It’s passed the Senate twice, on the NDAA and as a standalone, though the House hasn’t acted on it yet.

Lujan praised Hawley, often a foil for Democrats, for defending his constituents first, citing their unusual partnership as an “example of how maintaining relationships with your colleagues makes a difference, even though you may have a voting record that is 90 percent different.”

And Hawley isn’t above calling out reticent GOP colleagues — from Sen. Mitt Romney to Speaker Mike Johnson — to try to get the radiation compensation bill passed. The program expires on June 7, making it one of Congress’ only time-sensitive to-dos left in the coming months.

“It’s about doing right by people who are suffering, who are injured by the government: Working people and veterans … overwhelmingly,” Hawley said, adding that “you can see the cleavage between those who get it” and those who don’t in the GOP.

Of course, Republicans have not fully given up on using their Senate power to make a play for the base. They’re just more likely to do so on nominations these days. To wit: Vance has put holds on DOJ nominees over investigations into former President Donald Trump, and Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) created an unprecedented backlog in military promotions last year over his opposition to the Pentagon’s abortion leave policy.