Day 3: McCain vs. tea party senators
Republican ideologies clashed on the Senate floor for the third straight day Thursday as a group of tea party insurgents took on one of the GOP's most senior and established members in an acrimonious dispute over how to move forward on the budget and the debt ceiling.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who has served in Congress for 30 years, lectured and chided his junior colleagues for not understanding the legislative process and for insisting the Senate accept their policy positions.
At issue was whether and how to begin negotiations with the House over the chambers' competing budget proposals. The group of younger senators, led by Mike Lee of Utah, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, said they would refuse to agree to let those conference committee talks begin unless they were guaranteed negotiators would not agree to raise the debt limit as part of those talks.
"We could go to conference right now today if the Democrats would simply say we won't raise the debt ceiling with just using 50 votes. We will debate it on the floor with a 60-vote threshold and actually be forced to find some bipartisan compromise," Cruz said.
McCain disagreed. "It's not the regular order for a number senators, a small number, a minority within a minority here, to say they will not agree to go to conference."
"We're here to vote, not here to block things. We're here to articulate our positions on the issues and do what we can for the good of the country and the let the process move forward," he added.
Lee said he feared negotiators would make a secret deal to raise the debt ceiling and that the majority Democrats could use special budget rules to pass it over GOP objections.
"They want to go straight to closed-door, backroom meetings. There senior negotiators in the House and Senate will be free to wait until a convenient or official deadline and ram through their compromise un-debated, un-amended, and mostly unread," Lee said.
"We were not sent here to affirm the way the Senate worked as Congress racked up trillions in debt, inflated the housing bubble, doled out favors to special interests, squeezed the middle class and trapped the poor in poverty," Lee said. "We were sent here to change that."
McCain chastised Lee for not understanding that budget resolutions, like the ones being discussed, aren't signed into law and therefore could not be used to raise the debt ceiling. "Maybe the senator from Utah ought to learn a little bit more about how business is done in the Senate," he said.
McCain also noted conference committees meetings are open to the public.
"For him to say this is a backroom, closed-door deal, either he is directly misleading or has no knowledge of how the budget conference works," McCain said as Lee stood near him on the Republican side of the Senate floor. "I don't know which one it is and I don't know which one is worse."
Rubio said that if the debt ceiling couldn't be raised in the budget resolution process he didn't understand why McCain would object to including that demand in the budget talks.
"We can be in conference today with the House, be negotiating at this very moment," he said. "I just don't understand the objection to that being in there."
McCain, who was joined by a handful of veteran Democratic lawmakers in the back and forth that went on for over an hour, said by insisting on a particular outcome before negotiations had begun would set a bad precedent for future conference committees on all types of legislation.
McCain has clashed repeatedly with his tea party colleagues. Earlier this year, he described some of them as "whacko birds" for raising concerns that the U.S. government might use aerial drones to kill Americans in the United States -- something McCain said it wouldn't.
Cruz recalled the colorful parlance Thursday.
"It has been suggested that we are whacko birds. Well, if that is the case, I will suggest to my friend from Arizona, there may be more whacko birds in the Senate than is suspected."
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