Senate GOP clamor over leadership changes grows louder as Lee insists on term limits

GOP senators are increasingly publicizing their battle over potential rules changes ahead of the Republican leadership elections, with conservative Sen. Mike Lee doubling down on his push for term limits and clapping back at proposals from Sen. Thom Tillis.

In a letter sent to Senate Republicans on Wednesday, Lee (R-Utah) said the conference has a choice this year to either “further democratize the way we do business” or “further consolidate power in the Leader and weaken the ability of individual members to fully exercise their rights and duties.”

It’s a direct response to Tillis (R-N.C.), who on Sunday sent a letter outlining his own ideas for rules changes. A number of his proposals would give the next GOP leader more power over issues like committee assignments and appointing the chair of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm. He argued the changes could help conference priorities and messaging by being better aligned with GOP leadership.

Suffice to say, Lee disagreed.

“It is a strength of our conference — not a weakness — that we represent a diversity of viewpoints while generally agreeing on a conservative philosophy,” Lee wrote. “Allowing our differences to play-out in the legislative process is the best way to determine consensus and build unity.”

The back-and-forth is the latest example of growing tensions within the Republican conference over not only who will lead them, but what powers that person should have. With Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell planning to step away from his post later this year, conservatives are pressuring his potential successors to commit to a lofty list of rules changes, such as term limits and revamping committee assignments. And while both Tillis and Lee are keeping their written remarks civil, both have become emblematic of a larger and entrenched rift in the conference.

And many senators see the House Republican conference’s chaos this term as a potential warning sign. Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy relinquished key powers to appease his conservative opponents before that group booted him nine months later, causing months of governing crises including a three-week battle to replace him with Speaker Mike Johnson. Some senators are worried that proposals like Lee’s could mean similar — if less dramatic — trouble in their own chamber.

Tillis in his letter said he is not outright “advocating” for the rules changes but instead offering “food for thought.”

Tillis, as well as McConnell himself, have been among those who have vocally criticized the idea of imposing term limits on the next GOP leader, arguing it weakens the conference’s standing by impacting fundraising capabilities. Lee maintained his support for the proposed change in his Wednesday letter.

“While it is technically true that the Leader is open to challenge every two years, the reality is that the power of indefinite tenure disincentivizes any real effort to mount such a challenge,” Lee wrote, arguing it was generally too much of a “risk” for individual senators to challenge a leader with no term limits.

And Lee slapped down the idea of expanding the leader’s power over appointments for committees or the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Tillis had suggested the NRSC chair could be appointed by the leader but ratified by the full conference — similar to how Senate Democrats operate.

“The will of the conference is best carried out by the members who serve in it, not by a top-down management system,” Lee wrote.

Lee did find some common ground with Tillis, specifically on proposals that would boost access and visibility into the amendments process for rank-and-file members. But the Utah senator said he’d also want to prevent leadership from jamming up the amendments log via a tactic often called “filling the tree.” When the “tree” is filled, it makes it harder for rank-and-file members to get their amendments through.

And generally, Lee applauded Tillis for being part of the discussion on rules changes. The leadership elections aren’t until November, so there are still months to go as members butt heads over potential rules changes — with no guarantee that any would actually be adopted.

Still, Lee said he hopes the talks keep going.

“I want to thank Sen. Tillis for formalizing a set of proposals that should serve to continue the discussion, and ask that the conference begin setting aside dedicated time to do so,” Lee wrote. “I look forward to the continued dialogue.”