The most volatile issue in the Senate right now may not be the super committee's fight over budget cuts or the continued bickering over President Obama's jobs plan.
It's a subject far more personal, a volatile point of contention that can divide even the best of colleagues and inspire the kind of political vendettas that never really go away: college football.
Earlier this week, the Big 12 conference appeared ready to admit West Virginia into the league—a move so certain that university officials began tipping off members of their current conference, the Big East. But on Tuesday, the Big 12 abruptly backed off its overtures to the Mountaineers, leaving school officials in limbo and wondering what had happened.
On Wednesday, West Virginia received a key clue. The New York Times' Pete Thamel reported that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had lobbied officials at two Big 12 schools on behalf of his alma mater, the University of Louisville, which also is vying for a spot in the conference.
According to the Times, McConnell spoke to David Boren, a former Democratic senator from Oklahoma who is now president of the University of Oklahoma, and Kent Hance, a former Democratic representative from Texas who is now chancellor at Texas Tech. The conversations "played a role in raising Louisville's fortunes" in the conference re-alignment fight, Thamel wrote.
Boren and McConnell, who had previously insisted Congress shouldn't intervene in the college football drama, declined to comment, but Hance confirmed the conversations took place.
Not surprisingly, McConnell's alleged lobbying prompted anger among the two senators from West Virginia, Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, who are both Democrats. They have called on the Senate to investigate whether McConnell inappropriately interfered in the football drama.
"The Big 12 picked WVU on the strength of its program--period. Now the media reports that political games may upend that," Rockefeller, who is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and has jurisdiction over college athletics, told reporters. "That's just flat wrong. I am doing and will do whatever it takes to get us back to the merits."
Manchin, a West Virginia alum, went further, questioning McConnell's ethics.
"If a United States senator has done anything inappropriate or unethical to interfere with a decision that the Big 12 had already made—then I believe that there should be an investigation in the U.S. Senate, and I will fight to get to the truth," Manchin said in a statement. "West Virginians and the American people deserve to know exactly what is going on and whether politics is interfering with our college sports."
Manchin, who is facing re-election next year, later clarified that he expected McConnell to lobby on behalf of Louisville, but he questioned the timing of his outreach and whether it came before or after the Big 12 had made its (seemingly) final decision.
It is unclear if the senators have spoken directly to McConnell about their concerns. A source close to Rockefeller, who reportedly phoned Boren Wednesday to press him on West Virginia's behalf, cryptically told Yahoo News that the senator has been "very engaged" and has spoken to "many people" about the flap.
For his part, McConnell has said nothing publicly about the issue, and his spokesman, Don Stewart, declined to comment.
But last month, McConnell told ESPN that lawmakers should stay out of the alignment fight—a story that has been making the rounds among West Virginia's congressional delegation this week.
"I don't think the universities need any advice from Congress about how to run their business," McConnell told ESPN.com's Pat Forde. "I have concerns about it, but I'm not an expert on why the universities are doing what they're doing. I assume it is in their own best interests. From a fan perspective, it is a little perplexing. I don't know what's going to happen to traditional rivalries when they're traveling thousands of miles to play."
The Big 12 is reportedly set to announce its plans for expansion on Thursday or Friday.
(Correction: Due to an editing error, David Boren was originally identified as a former Republican senator from Oklahoma when he is in fact a Democrat. Ditto for Kent Hance, who is also a Democrat. We regret the errors.)
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