If you don’t punish bad behavior or hold the culprits of said behavior accountable for it, they are bound to do it again. No amount of coddling, pleading or placating will help once the precedent is set. Just ask House Speaker John Boehner how well that tactic has worked since the tea party took over the House in 2011. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has an equally cantankerous caucus. But the senior senator from the Bluegrass State has not been afraid to rap the knuckles of the unruly. And that’s going to help things immeasurably in Washington.
Last Friday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — a.k.a. “Mr. Congeniality” — basically called McConnell a liar. “We know now that when the majority leader looks us in the eyes and makes an explicit commitment, that he is willing to say things that he knows are false,” Cruz said in a floor speech. The leader’s offense was allowing votes on amendments, including one on the embattled Export-Import Bank. Cruz continued to breathe fire for the Capitol Hill press corps after the vote.
Tucked in the Politico story of the set-to was this nugget. “Asked to comment,” the news site reported Friday, “McConnell smiled and walked away.” That was the day he looked for votes to change the rules so he could get a vote on an amendment related to the Iran nuclear deal. According to Politico, when Cruz got only three of the 11 votes he was looking for, “McConnell, sitting at his desk, turned around and peered at Cruz, who looked stunned at what had just happened.” Revenge is a dish best served cold. Or Sunday, in this case.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who seems to be “Robin” to Cruz’s “Batman,” also acted out and got smacked back by McConnell on Sunday. Lee tried and failed to move an amendment to defund Planned Parenthood. Not to be outdone, he planned to secure votes on Monday to rework Senate rules to force yet another vote on the repeal of Obamacare. What McConnell did in response was absolutely gangsta.
As McConnell was dealing with the Cruz conniption on Friday, his crew got hold of an e-mail that a Lee staffer sent to conservative activists. According to Politico, not only did she lay out Lee’s plan to secure a simple-majority vote on Obamacare repeal by challenging Senate rules, but she also said that that vote ought to be scored. Scored votes have become ideological purity tests for congressional Republicans. Vote the wrong way and you’re asking for a primary challenge.
So McConnell called the GOP caucus together Monday night and placed on each member’s chair a copy of said e-mail. The malevolent missive was roundly criticized. Politico reported that “Lee was quick to apologize, saying he wasn’t aware of what his aide was doing.” Okay.
McConnell’s cool — no, cold-blooded — handling of Cruz and Lee was as brilliant as it was necessary. Contrary to Cruz’s conspiracy theories, McConnell’s not in league with Senate Democrats to further President Obama’s agenda. McConnell’s conservative credentials are unimpeachable. What the leader recognized is that ruptures in decorum are bad for the chamber and that tantrums leading to rule changes now could come back to haunt the caucus later.
Governing requires compromise between the parties. It also requires punishment when members of the majority try to get ahead of or thwart their leaders. Allowing such challenges to his authority to go unanswered would doom McConnell to Boehner’s fate. To quote Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins, the YouTube sensation of 2012, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” And McConnell has shown time and time again since the tea party takeover of his party and the shenanigans that have ensued that he doesn’t.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj