CLEVELAND (AP) — Talks between top Republican Party officials and recalcitrant conservatives broke down Thursday, increasing the odds of nationally televised clashes that GOP leaders have been hoping to avoid at next week’s national convention.
Not addressed in the day’s negotiations — and heading toward a Friday fight that backers of Donald Trump and top Republicans seem likely to win — was a conservative effort to “unbind” convention delegates and let them back any presidential candidate they’d like.
That struggle, which conservatives hope would lead to blocking Trump’s presidential nomination, could still be continued on the convention floor next week.
Even as Thursday’s talks foundered, the alliance between the Trump campaign and leaders of the Republican National Committee showed its muscle and began rejecting conservatives’ attempts to revamp party rules.
In one showdown, the rules 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 nonprofit 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 Texas Senator and former presidential contender Ted Cruz, to complain that the panel was displaying “a trend to rejecting those amendments that tend to disperse power.”
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 called the system rigged early on, and his opponents have demanded more power for delegates to select a fresh nominee.
The closed-door negotiations were aimed at finding middle ground that would have increased the chances for a smoothly functioning four-day gathering next week, averting televised battles among members 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, a spectacle top Republicans would love to avoid.
But by late afternoon, Ken Cuccinelli — a leader of the conservatives who was an adviser to Cruz’s defunct presidential campaign — said GOP leaders he was negotiating with told him, “Sorry, we don’t have a deal.”
Those talks focused on conservatives’ proposals, 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.
Both sides agreed that the bargaining broke down over an effort by conservatives to encourage states to close their primaries to independent voters, many of whom flocked to Trump in this year’s voting.
Cuccinelli said he would win enough support — 28 of the rules committee’s 112 members — to be allowed votes on several of his proposals by the full convention. RNC chief spokesman Sean Spicer said he would not reach that margin.
Spicer said party leaders have no desire to negotiate with other conservatives who have been pushing to let delegates abandon the candidates they were committed to by state primaries and caucuses. Trump won most of those contests, garnering more than 13 million votes.
“What, we come here and say, ‘Undo that’?” said Spicer. “There’s nothing to negotiate.”
RNC leaders and the Trump campaign have long said they had the votes to turn back the conservatives’ proposals, including the effort to unbind the delegates.
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.
Though she’s sure to be defeated Friday at the convention rules committee, Unruh says she expects to win enough support that her plan would be brought to the full convention for a vote. If it is, it will likely lose.
But she and others insist that even without the explicit change, current GOP rules already let delegates vote freely. Anti-Trump delegates plan to protest the convention’s nominating roll call next week if they’re not allowed to vote for whomever they want.
Unruh said they have the right to vote “freely and openly without retribution.”