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With incumbent field set, Republican voters face choices in Senate primaries

There might be no greater contrast in the type of races Senate Republicans will run this year than that of Sens. John Thune and Ron Johnson, both of whom announced recently that they would in fact run for reelection.

Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican who is a contender to one day become the Senate Republican leader, engaged in a relative peaceful co-existence with President Trump for four years, but the relationship permanently severed when the South Dakota senator blasted Trump’s effort to overturn the electoral college. Trump sought out primary opponents.

Johnson, a fellow Midwesterner who has a much bluer electorate than Thune, got Trump’s endorsement before he formally announced his reelection. The Wisconsin Republican
has claimed — without evidence — that the FBI had advance knowledge about the Jan. 6 insurrection but failed to stop it.

While the incumbent field has been set, this spring Republican voters in states with contested primaries will determine whether the remaining slate of GOP Senate candidates look more like Thune or Johnson. The primaries and their winners will have broad implications for the future makeup of the Senate Republican conference.

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Election favors GOP, but candidates matter

In several states, including Arizona, Ohio, Missouri and Pennsylvania, the primary fields are still wide open, with plenty of room for Trump or establishment Republicans to try to influence the outcome.

The state that could provide Republicans the most heartburn is Missouri, where several Trump supporters are contending for the nomination — and the endorsement. Among them is former Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned in 2018 over investigations into claims that he sexually assaulted and blackmailed his hairdresser. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt pleaded with Trump last month to not back him, expressing confidence that if Greitens got the nomination, Republicans would lose the seat.

There are several candidates who have already garnered endorsements from Trump in contested primaries, including Rep. Mo Brooks in Alabama and Rep. Ted Budd of North Carolina.

Even if Trump-favored candidates don’t make it through primaries or end up losing their races, the conference is all but certain to be more closely aligned with the former president than it is today.

Several of the GOP senators who chose retirement kept varying degrees of distance from Trump and are close with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), including Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Richard Shelby of Alabama. Toomey and Burr voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial.

“In some of the safer seats, who replaces them is going to matter,” said Jessica Taylor, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “These are all people who would not make McConnell’s life easy by any means. He’d be getting more [Sens.] Josh Hawley-, Ted Cruz-types than he is John Thune-types, certainly.”

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Filibuster, voting rights, faces Senate crossroads

Democrats, eager to notch a legislative victory after Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia all but killed their social spending and climate bill late last year, have redirected their efforts to voting rights. President Biden went to Georgia on Tuesday to make the case to preserve the right to vote and undo the Senate filibuster to accomplish it. He said the institution where he spent most of his political career is a “shell of its former self” under the filibuster, the 60-vote threshold that has become a de facto requirement for most legislation in recent years.

The Senate may vote as soon as Wednesday on the major voting rights legislation, which is certain to be blocked by a GOP filibuster. From there, Democrats are expected to pursue some change to the filibuster, with several proposals on the table. But they still face an uphill battle, with opposition from Manchin, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and other skeptics.

Manchin has expressed support to do away with one of the opportunities to filibuster a bill, but not all of them. Under this proposal, the minority would not be able to block the majority from starting debate on legislation, but they would still be able to do so before a vote on final passage.

So while it would allow more bills to get floor action, it would not do much in terms of getting a bill passed. There is also support for requiring a “talking” filibuster, which would require senators who want to block a bill to be more active instead of the passive position they can currently take.

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COVID hits Congress

Congress is far from immune from the rampant spread of COVID-19 in recent weeks. A total of 109 members of the House and 18 senators have now contracted the virus (and acknowledged it publicly), according to a public list maintained by “PBS NewsHour” reporter Lisa Desjardins. Fifteen cases have been announced in 2022 alone.

In response, the attending physician has advised lawmakers and aides to wear N95 or KN95 masks. House officials have spread out votes to try to allow for more distancing.

In addition, over 100 lawmakers voted by “proxy” this week, allowing them to remain in their home districts but vote on issues in the House. About half of the House members who represent districts in California have letters on file that allowed them to vote by proxy this week.

The view from Washington

— The Biden administration’s COVID-19 policies, particularly its conflicting guidance on quarantine, came under fire in a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

— Biden administration lawyers urged the Supreme Court on Tuesday to deny bond hearings and a chance to go free to immigrants who are being held for deportation after returning illegally to the United States.

— Skeptical U.S. and Russian officials Monday held eight hours of “frank, forthright” discussions aimed at averting war in Ukraine but came away with little more than an agreement to continue to talk.

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