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5 reasons why Sessions relinquishing Budget chairmanship is a blessing in disguise

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) spars with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) over the impact the proposed immigration reforms will have on the domestic job market.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) spars with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) over the impact the proposed immigration reforms will have on the domestic job market.

Conservatives around the country were justifiably disappointed on Wednesday when Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) announced that he was stepping aside and allowing Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) to take over as Budget Committee Chairman when Republicans assume control of the Senate in January.

Everyone, including Sessions, was surprised last month when Enzi signaled that he wanted to use his seniority to take over the Budget Committee, on which Sessions had served as the top Republican for the last several years. Enzi, meanwhile, had been focusing his efforts on the Health Committee.

Here’s a little more background info as a reminder:

Seniority determines almost everything in the Senate, from where Senators sit inside the Chamber to what committees they serve on and what chairmanships they receive.

Sen. Sessions and Sen. Enzi were both elected to the Senate in 1996. But Sessions is more senior than Enzi as a result of Alabama being a larger state. However — and this is where it gets a little more complicated — when senators are elected in the same year, committee seniority is actually decided by drawing lots. And way back in 1996, the random process placed Sen. Enzi one spot ahead of Sen. Sessions when it comes to committee seniority.

So by Senate tradition, Enzi is well within his right to takeover the Budget Committee, even if it seems a bit unfair to those of us on the outside looking in.

But when word began to spread that Enzi was making his move, conservatives immediately cried foul and pointed fingers at Republican Leadership — namely Sen. Mitch McConnell — who they believed were pushing Sessions out because of his hardline approach to immigration and his unwillingness to compromise his principles on, well, anything.

But from talking to numerous Senate aides and Capitol Hill insiders, it appears that Enzi genuinely just decided that he wanted a shot at the Budget. By all accounts, Sessions and Enzi are among the closest friends in the Senate, and managed to work out the deal between themselves, rather than asking their colleagues to choose sides and vote.

And although it’s hard for many Alabamians and conservatives not to be disappointed, frustrated, even angry about the way this played out, there may be a silver lining — several of them, actually.

Here are 5 reasons why Sessions relinquishing the Budget chairmanship might actually be a blessing in disguise:

1. He’ll be freed up to fight

Sessions has made a name for himself all over the country as a fighter — for being the farthest thing imaginable from a go-along-to-get-along rubber stamp for Senate Leadership. He recently led the conservative opposition to the CRomnibus, in addition to his constant barrage of floor speeches and media appearances opposing amnesty.

Without the extraordinarily time consuming responsibility of chairing the Budget Committee — which would have monopolized his time — expect to see Sessions leading fights on the Senate floor whenever it’s called for on a wide range of issues that are important to conservatives.

2. The Budget Committee’s current composition would make Sessions’ ability to implement staunchly conservative reforms very difficult

Sens. Lindsay Graham, Kelly Ayote, Mike Crapo, Rob Portman, Roger Wicker — the Budget Committee isn’t exactly a conservative dream team, and that’s just the Republicans. One House aide I spoke with on Wednesday laughingly referred to the Budget Committee as the Senate’s “RINO Roundtable,” while a Senate aide more carefully described it as “not exactly the most conservative group of senators you’ll ever see.”

Sessions will still be on the committee, giving him the ability to pull the panel to the right. But my next point will illustrate why it would have been next to impossible to impose his will as Chairman…

3. Sessions would have owed them his position, robbing him of the leverage needed to lead

Most members of the Senate are transactional; “I’ll give you this in return for that.” If Sessions were most members, he would have looked for every possible angle to cut deals and propel himself to the chairmanship. But in doing that — and by asking senators to buck the deeply-engrained seniority system — he would have owed every senator on the committee, big time.

Chairmanships in the Senate matter because members defer to the Chairman. The aforementioned senators would likely not be inclined to be very deferential to a Chairman who owed them so much. And is that the group of Senators to whom conservatives want Sessions beholden? If they’d given him the chairmanship, they could have just as easily taken it away in future years.

4. Seniority cuts both ways

It’s especially hard for conservatives, whose ideology is so tied to the concept of merit, to get a warm and fuzzy about the Senate’s seniority system.

But it cuts both ways.

The seniority system that is keeping Sessions out of the Budget post is the same seniority system that has him in line to chair arguably the two most powerful committees in the Senate — Judiciary and Armed Services. When Sen. Chuck Grassley, who is 81, and Sen. John McCain, who is 78, are no longer in the Senate, there is nothing that anyone can do to stop Sessions, who is 67, from taking either of those committee chairmanships for himself.

But if Sessions had convinced his colleagues to set a new precedent and buck the seniority system this time, what would have stopped them from doing the same to him when the time comes?

5. He can fully embrace his natural role as conservatives’ Senior Statesman

Without the Budget Chairmanship monopolizing his time, Sessions will take on the chairmanships of numerous key subcommittees, from the Strategic Forces subcommittee on Armed Services, to the Immigration and Border Security subcommittee on Judiciary, for example. He’ll also be able to push back against the EPA as a senior member of the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Sessions is the conservative conscience of the Senate. While other staunchly conservative senators are angling for the presidency, he’s fully embraced his role as the senior statesman.

The point is, on every single issue that matters to conservatives right now, Sessions is better positioned than ever to lead the fight.

That’s a good thing for Alabama. And a great thing for America.


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