Tea Party Senators jump the shark

In a key moment on the Senate floor this morning, John McCain came very close to stating outright that Tea Party Republican Senators are in the grip of what some of us have been describing as a kind of “post policy nihilism” that has taken over the GOP. This should be a real clarifying moment: Tea Party Senators have pushed their disregard for basic governing norms so far that even fellow Republicans are calling them out for it.

Far right Senators Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul have been insisting that Democrats and Republicans should not enter into conference negotiations over the budget unless Democrats agree in advance not to push for a rise in the debt ceiling as part of the talks. McCain took to the Senate floor today and laid into Senator Lee very hard over this:

As McCain rightly pointed out, the Tea Party demand is effectively is that Republicans must not negotiate over the budget “unless certain conditions are imposed” on the negotiations beforehand “that happen to be important to a small group of United States Senators.”

“Obviously that would paralyze the process here,” McCain continued. The Tea Party Senators have complained that conference negotiations amount to back room dealing, but as McCain pointed out, whatever agreement is reached is subjected “to an overall vote of both bodies” of Congress. McCain suggested that governing can’t happen if the two sides can’t enter into negotiations, and in a reference to Lee’s claims about the debt ceiling, added: “maybe the senator from Utah ought to learn a little bit more about how business has been done in the Congress of the United States.”

This is really remarkable stuff, and again goes to a basic fact about today’s politics, which is that Tea Party lawmakers have — willfully, it seems – decided that they no longer have any obligation to engage in basic governing. And that holds outsized influence over the entire party. Indeed, this Tea Party debt ceiling gambit has the support of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell. This, even though other Republican leaders, such as John Boehner, have already admitted that Republicans are going to raise the debt limit in the end.

The fact that McCain has now denounced their antics — as did Susan Collins yesterday — in such harsh terms suggests that allowing the Tea Party trio to continue calling the shots may be increasingly untenable. Democrats are already exploiting the divisions to increase pressure on Republicans to enter into budget talks. “Quite a few Senate Republicans disagree with their leadership’s position,” Senator Patty Murray said on the Senate floor yesterday. “Senate Republicans should realize that their opposition to bipartisan negotiations is simply not sustainable and should come back to the table.”

Democrats hope that Republican lawmakers will now be forced to face their constituents and local editorial boards and be asked to explain why they are willing to hold up budget talks, seemingly because far right members want to maintain their ability to threaten to blow up the economy in order to get their way.

This poses a very simple test for Republicans who like to think of themselves as moderate. How many of them will do what McCain and Collins have done and call out this lunacy among their far right colleagues? This is yet another sign that the post policy nihilism that has taken over large swaths of the GOP is the real reason compromise in Washington has become impossible.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Jamelle Bouie | May 23, 2013