By Scott Wong - 01-15-17 06:00 AM EST
Emboldened by President-elect Donald Trump's call to "drain the swamp," conservatives on Capitol Hill are renewing their push to impose term limits on members of Congress.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) have already offered a constitutional amendment that would limit senators to two six-year terms and House members to three- two-year terms. Several other lawmakers are preparing to roll out similar legislation.
And the far-right House Freedom Caucus, to which DeSantis belongs, has been discussing whether to take a formal position in the coming weeks to support restricting congressional terms.
Term-limit proponents have a key ally in Trump, who will be sworn in as president on Friday. On the campaign trail, the political outsider and billionaire business mogul vowed to press for term limits and end the "decades of failure in Washington and decades of special interest dealing."
But Trump faces huge hurdles in trying to enact such reforms. For one, the institution of Congress is slow to change, run by leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) who've spent decades roaming the halls of the Capitol.
Second, changing term limits requires a constitutional amendment, meaning any proposal will need to clear a two-thirds threshold in both the House and Senate, then be sent to the states for ratification.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who is starting his 10th House term, has said he's "always" backed term limits but that he won't be the one leading the charge. Instead, he said he'd leave it to the Judiciary Committee to take up the issue - yet another hurdle.
Freedom Caucus Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) has pledged to his constituents he'll only stay in Congress for six terms, and he backs a constitutional amendment limiting terms. But even he has doubts there's an appetite among his colleagues to tackle the issue this Congress.
When he was first took office in 2011, DesJarlais sent a letter to each of his 434 House colleagues asking if they supported term limits. He received 50 responses, and of those, only 25 lawmakers endorsed the idea of term limits.
"Based on my survey, I wouldn't have high hopes," DesJarlais told The Hill. "I don't know whether it would pass or not."
Opponents say longevity on the Hill provides them with institutional knowledge, seniority and often political power - all of which can help them better navigate Washington and serve their constituents back home.
"Well, we have term limits already. It's two years," scoffed Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), the immediate past chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee who first took office in 1981 when Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.
McConnell, the 74-year-old leader of the Senate, echoed that same argument just a week after Trump's election victory in November. Term limits, he declared, "will not be on the agenda in the Senate."
But while Congress may seem reluctant to change, Trump has already demonstrated he'll use his bully pulpit - and Twitter - to get Republicans in line. When House Republicans voted earlier this month to weaken an independent congressional ethics office, Trump warned them in a tweet they were focusing on the wrong priorities.
Hill Republicans quickly reversed course.
"There's a lot of support" for term limits, said Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), another Freedom Caucus member who plans to introduce his own term-limits legislation in the coming weeks. "This president elect is supporting it, and I think he'll tweet about it."
The Freedom Caucus, a band of roughly 40 conservative House Republicans, discussed the Labrador, DeSantis and other proposals during their weekly meeting at Tortilla Coast, a Tex-Mex restaurant near the Capitol. The group could formally vote on endorsing term limits at a future date, but members said they want to wait until other proposals are rolled out.
"You become worse the longer you are here. You become less responsive to your constituents and more responsive to special interest groups," Labrador said in an interview while walking down the steps of the Capitol.
"People who come here come with good intentions, but this place makes you forget what you came here for," he added. "And I think it's important that you have turnover."
Cruz's constitutional amendment has been co-sponsored by eight other Republicans, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). In a statement to The Hill, Cruz - a onetime presidential rival of Trump - said Congress has broken from the "citizen legislators" envisioned by the founding fathers.
"Today, Washington, D.C. and the federal government is broken, and we have career politicians in both parties who come here and stay for decades. They get entrenched in power. They become captive to the special interests. The power of incumbency is such that many of them can get elected as long as they like," Cruz said. "That is much of what is contributing to the explosion of government spending and debt. ...
"There are few, if any, more potent tools to drain the swamp and make people leave Congress."
But not all conservatives share that view. Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) said the new GOP push for term limits is misguided; tackling the billions of dollars of campaign spending is the only way to drain the Washington swamp, he said.
Term limits was part of Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" that Jones's freshman class ran on in 1994, he said, but the effort went nowhere in Congress.
"What amazes me is there is no interest in the Republican Party for campaign-finance reform. Term limits is not the answer. The answer is to get the billions of dollars out of campaigns," said Jones, whose father served more than 25 years in Congress before him.
"Money drives policy up here."