- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2015

The Conservative Political Action Conference is the biggest annual gathering of Republican leaders and conservative activists, but neither Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell nor House Speaker John A. Boehner is scheduled to make the 10-mile drive from Capitol Hill to speak to CPAC this year, underscoring the lingering tensions between Republican Washington leadership and the party’s grass roots.

It marks the first time in years that Mr. McConnell will skip the CPAC gathering, a year after the Kentucky Republican made headlines by holding aloft a gun during his speech. Mr. Boehner last spoke at CPAC in 2010, months before the tea party helped fuel Republicans’ takeover of the House and made the Ohio Republican the speaker.

Both have tussled with their right flank over how best to advance a conservative agenda at the Capitol.

Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman, said his boss is bogged down by his day job.

“Speaker Boehner’s responsibilities in the Capitol, and his travel schedule, will not allow him to attend this year, but he has always had a good relationship with ACU and that hasn’t changed,” Mr. Steel said.

Mr. McConnell’s office said the scheduling didn’t work out this year and he felt that with a spending fight over the Department of Homeland Security raging on the Senate floor, he needed to be at the Capitol.

SEE ALSO: CPAC 2015 organizers aim to recapture intimacy, activism of early days

Grover Norquist, chairman of Americans for Tax Reform and board member of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC, said he didn’t read too much into the absence of the Republican Party’s two most powerful congressional leaders. The event this year is focused more on grass-roots activism and the 2016 presidential race, he said.

“Neither of them are running for anything,” Mr. Norquist said. “The presidential candidates are trying to elbow their way onto the stage, and every issue group is trying to elbow their way in as well.”

A number of rank-and-file lawmakers will be speaking, as will Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the fourth-ranking House Republican, and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, who chairs the Senate Republican Policy Committee.

The biggest names from Congress are the three senators considering presidential bids: Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas.

CPAC marks the second time this year that the emerging crop of potential Republican presidential contenders will be able to speak to a big conservative audience. Last month, a number of them flocked to Des Moines, Iowa, for the Freedom Summit, hosted by Rep. Steve King, who voted this year to oust Mr. Boehner as speaker.

“CPAC 2015 is all about the 2016 Republican presidential field, and Boehner and McConnell don’t figure into that equation,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican Party strategist. “While they are not exactly crowd favorites at CPAC, their time is better served at the Capitol working to prevent a government shutdown.”

The four-day CPAC gathering will feature about a dozen potential Republican candidates, including Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, in addition to the three senators.

Former Govs. Rick Perry of Texas, Jeb Bush of Florida and Sarah Palin of Alaska also are slated to address the audience, as are former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, retired neurosurgeon Ben S. Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

The event, which is being held at a hotel just outside the Washington Beltway, typically draws hordes of conservatives with a libertarian bent and provides a snapshot of who is in good standing with that slice of the party. Mr. Paul, the party’s leading libertarian voice in Washington, won the CPAC presidential straw poll the past two years.

In 2013, Mr. Christie was not invited. The snub was based in part on criticism he aimed at Mr. Boehner and other House Republican leaders over Superstorm Sandy recovery funds.

In the midst of a re-election campaign last year, Mr. McConnell strode awkwardly onto the CPAC stage holding up a rifle as rocker Jon Bon Jovi’s song “Living on a Prayer” blared from the speakers.

“If I am given the opportunity to lead the U.S. Senate next year, I won’t let you down,” Mr. McConnell pledged to the crowd. “I will lead it with integrity. We will fight tooth and nail for conservative reforms that will put this country back on track.”

Mr. McConnell overcame some conservative opposition in the Republican primary and to win his sixth term in the November election, where Republicans flipped control of the Senate.

John Feehery, a Republican Party strategist, said the Boehner and McConnell no-shows are proof that CPAC has lost some of its luster and clout.

“CPAC has become less and less relevant over the years — mostly populated by Ron Paul people and folks who want to sell books,” Mr. Feehery said.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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