UPDATE 7:54 p.m.: During an interview with The Washington Post later Thursday, Corker disputed suggestions that he appeared angry during his exchange with Cruz and Lee. "I candidly enjoyed it very much," he said. "I think it's very commonplace, especially on an important bill like this that people care about, for people to be discussing tactics and the best way to end up with a good policy outcome, which obviously all Republicans want to see happen."
The months-long divide in ideology and tactics splintering Senate Republicans was laid bare on the Senate floor Thursday in an incredibly rare, heated exchange between three senators.
The only thing separating them being a single Senate desk, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) engaged in what Senate rules deem a "colloquy," but what most observers would call an old-style public airing of grievances.
At one point, Corker accused Cruz and Lee of turning Senate proceedings “into a show.” Cruz countered by questioning Corker’s loyalty to the Republican Party by siding with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.)
The clash lasted roughly 10 minutes, with colleagues watching and cameras rolling. It exposed deep disagreements among Republicans over how they should proceed with the spending bill, which currently includes language defunding the new federal health-care law. But using procedural rules that allow him to make changes to the bill, Reid plans to amend the bill by restoring funding for the new federal health-care law.
Realizing that they lack the power to stop Reid, most Senate Republicans this week have favored quickly approving the Senate bill and sending it back to the House, where Republicans could easily amend it again with more changes. But Cruz, Lee and seven other conservative senators mounted a 21-hour campaign beginning Tuesday to slow consideration of the bill and draw attention to widespread opposition to the health-care law, commonly known as Obamacare.
Resentment over that filibuster-style campaign came Thursday afternoon, when Reid sought to accelerate consideration of the spending measure by asking that senators hold votes Thursday evening.
Lee stood and suggested instead that the votes be held Friday: "The American people are paying for this, the American people are watching this, a lot have expected this might occur Friday or Saturday," he said.
But Reid objected, because "every minute that goes by is a minute closer to a government shutdown." He deemed Lee and Cruz's attempt to delay the vote "a big, big charade that is not getting them where they need to go."
Reid then yielded to Corker, who said he also disagreed with Lee and Cruz's request to wait.
"The reason we're waiting is that y'all have sent out releases and e-mails and you want everybody to be able to watch," Corker told his Republican colleagues. "And it just doesn't seem to me that that's in our nation's interest. Nor is it, candidly, in the interest of those who want to see good policy on the conservative side."
Appearing to snicker as Corker spoke, Cruz then stood and asked permission to speak because "the senator from Tennessee made reference to me."
"Everyone in this chamber wants to proceed with this bill," Cruz explained, standing one row of desks behind Corker. He repeatedly suggested that Corker was "learned" in Senate procedure and therefore understood that forthcoming votes would cut off debate on the spending bill and permit Democrats to restore funding for Obamacare.
In response, Corker said he also opposed the health-care law, but reiterated his concern that Cruz and Lee "sent out e-mails around the world and turned this into a show."
"They want people around the world to watch maybe them and others on the Senate floor," Corker said. "And that is taking priority over getting legislation back to the House so they can take action before the country's government shuts down."
As the senators tussled, Reid and his deputy, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), sat across the chamber watching, at times whispering to each other and suppressing laughter. Reporters initially unaware of the exchange trickled into the gallery above to watch, as did off-duty Capitol Police officers. Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance W. Gainer, who rarely enters the chamber to watch proceedings, also showed up to watch.
Disagreements between Republican senators are well known, but usually play out behind closed doors during weekly luncheons and other conference meetings. The conference in recent months has divided between a group of moderate senators who have expressed a willingness to work with Democrats to strike comprehensive agreements on fiscal matters and more junior senators backed by tea party supporters more interested in confronting Democrats.
Suggestions of the rift between Cruz and Corker first surfaced last week, when Corker used Twitter to criticize Cruz's plan to delay an eventual vote. "I didn’t go to Harvard or Princeton, but I can count — the defunding box canyon is a tactic that will fail and weaken our position," Corker wrote.
After Thursday's exchange, supporters of Cruz blasted Corker. Andy Roth, a top official with the conservative Club for Growth, said on Twitter that by disagreeing so publicly with Lee and Cruz, "Senator Corker effectively became a Democrat just now on the Senate floor."
Ultimately, Reid bowed to Cruz and Lee's objections and said the Senate would vote Friday. He called the decision "unfortunate."
Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost