GOP leaders, conservatives talk convention rules

ALAN FRAM, Associated Press

Cleveland — Top Republican officials and recalcitrant conservatives held closed-door talks Thursday in an effort to head-off a clash at next week’s GOP National Convention that could embarrass the party. As they did, party leaders and backers of Donald Trump on the convention’s rules committee showed their muscle and began rejecting conservatives’ attempts to revamp party rules.

The talks were aimed at finding a middle-ground that would achieve a top goal for Trump and leaders of the Republican National Commitee — a smooth convention next week without nationally televised, pitched battles that could damage the image of a party whose likely presidential candidate has already proven divisive. There’s been talk of some Trump foes walking out of the convention if they feel they’ve been treated unfairly.

Among those involved in private meetings were GOP Chairman Reince Priebus and Ken Cuccinelli, a leader of the conservatives who was an adviser to the defunct presidential campaign of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Conservative convention delegates allied with Cuccinelli have proposed “unbinding” delegates so they would not have to back the candidates they were committed to by state primaries and caucuses. They were also pushing a series of populist changes aimed at appealing to grassroots conservatives that would take power from the Republican National Committee — consisting of 168 party leaders from around the country — and its chairman, who is currently Reince Priebus.

As negotiations proceeded, the 112 delegates on the convention’s rules committee began beating back proposals from its conservative members to weaken party leaders.

In one show of muscle, the committee voted 86-23 to reject an effort by conservatives to eliminate the RNC’s ability to change party rules in years between national conventions. In another, the panel used a voice vote to defeat a plan to bar members of the RNC from being lobbyists — a profession that employs many of them back in their home states, though it would have exempted lobbyists for non-profit organizations.

Such a proposal “is both un-American and conflicts with the fundamental right to earn a living,” said Harmeet Dhillon, a delegate from California.

Those setbacks led Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a member of the rules committee who is close to Cruz, to complain that the panel was displaying “a trend to rejecting those amendments that tend to disperse power.”

Yet in a gesture to conservatives, the rules panel voted to create a commission that by 2018 could propose changes to the GOP’s presidential nominating process, which came under intense fire this year. Trump calling the system rigged early on, and his opponents have demanded more power for delegates to select a fresh nominee and objected that states shouldn’t let independents vote in GOP primaries, which helped Trump.

RNC leaders and campaign officials for presumptive nominee Donald Trump have long said they had the votes to turn back the conservatives’ proposals, including efforts by delegates seeking to stop Trump from winning the party’s nomination by letting delegates vote freely.

But underscoring their priority of achieving an internal truce, the rules committee unexpectedly took a long recess in the early part of the day, including an initial break that committee leaders blamed on an equipment “paper jam.”

Later, Mickelsen said the competing groups wanted “to try to work out their differences.”

One leading plan by anti-Trump forces is by Kendal Unruh, a Colorado delegate, who would let the 2,472 delegates abandon the candidate they’re supposed to support and instead vote their conscience.

No one expects Unruh’s proposal to win a majority on the convention rules committee, which is heavy with top party officials. But Unruh has said she expects to win support from at least 28 of them — which under party rules means her plan would be brought to the full convention next Monday for a vote.

If it is, it seems likely to lose. But Unruh and her allies can’t be completely dismissed because while most delegates are committed to backing Trump in the roll call for the nomination, current rules let every delegate vote however he or she wishes on other fights over rules, the platform and credentials.

In another tactic, the dissidents also plan to challenge the roll calls of state delegations when the nominee is chosen later in the week. Many of them say current GOP rules already let them back any candidate — a reading that RNC general counsel John Ryder derided Wednesday as “idiosyncratic.”