For the last 200 years, the United States Senate had been an institution governed by precedent, a mannerly chamber where members addressed each other as “gentlemen” and “gentleladies,” where traditions were preserved, and where freshmen serving alongside their octogenarian counterparts were expected to be seen and not heard.
But a battle raging over the federal budget has changed all that, stalling a House-Senate conference on the budget for more than two months and exposing a deep divide within the Republican Party between long-serving moderates and a quartet of Tea Party freshmen—Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Marco Rubio—who say the Senate is not only incapable of solving the country’s problems, the Senate is the problem.
The four men, who have a little more than six years of Senate experience among them, differ in temperament and backgrounds, but together are both roiling Senate elders and accumulating power at an unprecedented pace. Through a combination of legislative maneuvers, social-media mastery, and a rebellious streak that has caught fire with dispirited conservatives, they have become a force to be reckoned with, but mostly by members of their own party.
“Everybody has to react to them. McCain reacts to them. McConnell has to shape his agenda to react to Rand Paul,” a veteran Republican staffer told me recently. “It’s real. And they’re ascendant. They’re very smart, they all understand American politics in 2013, and at least two of them are running for president. It’s kind of sad.”
Never before in the history of the Senate has a group of freshmen in either party asserted themselves so quickly or so strongly, said Tom Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. “These are all highly visible, intelligent, articulate people who have a disdain for the institution of which they are a part and don’t accept the notion of what kind of body it should be,” he said.
Mann distinguishes Rubio from the group because he has spent months working with Democrats and Republicans to advance immigration reform. “That demonstrates a capacity to legislate, as opposed to a capacity to provoke and appeal to anger and raise hell about the institution.”
Although they all have had breakout moments of their own, the four have joined forces with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and against much of the rest of their party, 11 times to block a meeting between House and Senate negotiators over the last two months unless they can get a commitment that the nation’s debt ceiling will not be raised in the budget-agreement process. It’s a move that’s never been used before, but as they made clear during a heated debate last week, that’s precisely the reason they’re doing it.
“We’re told … it’s the way Washington works,” Lee said during a standoff with Sen. John McCain. “In case nobody has noticed, the way Washington works stinks.”
McCain scolded the men, whom he called “a minority within the minority.”
"We’re here to vote, we’re not here to block things," McCain said.
But Cruz followed Lee on the Senate floor to spar with McCain. “We spend a great deal of time arguing about procedural niceties … that do not matter to the American people,” he said. “And all the meantime we are bankrupting our children and grandchildren.”
But the episode between McCain and the freshmen, along with the larger politics of their blocking the budget, are causing new headaches for Republicans, after berating Democrats for failing to pass a budget in the Senate for the last four years and now failing to get their own caucus to agree to move it forward. It’s a family feud Democrats are happy to watch from the sidelines.
“The onus is on the Republicans to figure out what is going on on their side that’s preventing us from going to conference,” said Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for the Budget Committee Democrats. “They’re taking the position that it’s not their job in the Senate to cast a vote, it’s to get their way at any cost. It’s not have their say, it’s get their way.”
Both sides readily admit that they don’t know what the next move in the budget battle will be, but it won’t be coming from their party. A Republican leadership aide said the Democrats have the power to hold an up-or-down vote to begin the conference. Democrats say that process would take more than a week and that it’s up to McConnell to get his caucus together and allow the process to move forward smoothly when it’s clear that a majority in the Senate support it.
But Tom Mann of Brookings points out that McConnell, who is up for reelection in Kentucky in 2014, has his own electoral problems to contend with, along with Rand Paul’s popularity at home. “McConnell is doing everything he can to buttress his support,” Mann said. “It’s a complicated game for him to play, no question.”
And while Paul, Cruz, Lee, and Rubio might be upsetting their colleagues, one group of people they’re making happy is the Tea Party Republicans who worked to get them elected.
“I absolutely support what they are doing,” said Amy Kremer, the president of the national Tea Party Express. “When Ted ran for office he said, ‘I’m going to kick down the doors, rip off the drapes, and auction off the silver and china.’ And that’s exactly what he’s doing.”
Kremer said Tea Party voters did not send candidates to the Senate to join the “‘good ole boy’ network,” they sent them to the Senate to break it apart. The budget standoff is an example of them doing just that, she added.
“I commend them all for that because there’s a lot of pressure there,” she said. “You want to be accepted. You want to make friends. But you’re not there to be liked.”