Mike Lee of Utah is part of a vanishing breed — Republican senators who are NOT running for president — and in this role he rose on the Senate floor Tuesday morning pleading for his ambitious colleagues to stop embarrassing the party.
“The American people deserve better than this,” he said, after an intra-party squabble between GOP presidential candidate Rand Paul and Senate Republican leadership caused various counterterrorism efforts to cease. “Vital national security programs . . . should not be subject to cynical, government-by-cliff brinksmanship. If members of Congress, particularly Republican members of Congress, ever want to improve their standing among the American people, then we must abandon this habit of political gamesmanship.”
Good luck with that.
The game is the Republican presidential primary, and no fewer than four senators are playing. They have discovered that tying the Senate in knots is a cheap and easy way of gaining attention. But a casualty of their game is governing: turning Congress, already barely functioning, into a legislative mess. It is no small irony that Republicans are running for president by proving that their party can’t govern.
The last week, Paul has been the monkey wrench in the gears, protesting NSA surveillance by delaying the (inevitable) passage of a successor to the Patriot Act and causing a suspension of wide-ranging efforts to thwart terrorists. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Paul of “a campaign of demagoguery and disinformation” – and that’s from a guy who has endorsed his fellow Kentuckian’s White House bid. Other Republican senators called Paul a liar who puts political fundraising above the nation’s security.
But McConnell has a whole set of monkey wrenches. There’s Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), whose attempt to force Obama to change his immigration policy by threatening to shut down Homeland Security operations caused a politically damaging standoff for Republicans. Candidate Cruz also tried to block confirmation of Loretta Lynch as attorney general for the same reason.
Another candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), nearly derailed a bipartisan agreement on Iran legislation when he surprised McConnell by trying to force a vote on a poison-pill amendment requiring Iran to recognize Israel as a condition of any nuclear deal. Rubio and Paul took turns wasting the Senate’s time in March, when Paul tried to make huge cuts to non-defense programs (he lost, 96-4) and Rubio proposed extra-large increases to the Pentagon budget (he lost, 68-32).
Cruz, Paul and Rubio, meanwhile, have been fighting to keep the Senate from reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, a target of conservatives, which will close at the end of the month without congressional action. On the other side of the issue is the fourth GOP presidential candidate in the Senate, Lindsey Graham (S.C.), who in turn blocked consideration of trade legislation until McConnell promised to have a vote on reauthorizing the bank.
At least Graham could not be blamed for anything that happened in the Senate on Tuesday: He was away, campaigning in New Hampshire.
The attention-grabbing efforts are nothing new. Paul held up Obama’s nominee to run the CIA in 2013 with a 13-hour filibuster, and he, Cruz and Rubio that year blocked the Senate from naming conferees to negotiate a budget with the House, while Graham blocked Obama nominees over the attack on Americans in Benghazi. Cruz’s delay of a vote on a $1.1 trillion spending bill last year allowed Democrats to confirm two dozen of Obama’s nominees.
The difference now is these presidential wannabes are disrupting the designs of their own party – and exploiting a pledge by their leader, McConnell, to make the legislative process more freewheeling.
Freewheeling is exactly what McConnell got from Paul in recent days – and both men came out losers.
Paul, an opponent of the Patriot Act, not only failed in his effort to block the reauthorization, but he antagonized his colleagues so much that they refused to take up his (reasonable) amendments. McConnell, a fan of the original Patriot Act, tried to outmaneuver Paul by pushing the vote to the deadline, but this miscalculation caused the Patriot Act to lapse, and McConnell failed in his bid to strengthen the new legislation.
Thirty-six hours after their standoff caused the counterterrorism programs to expire, McConnell was still complaining when he opened the Senate Tuesday morning, saying Paul’s continued objections allowed “yet another day to elapse when everyone has already had a chance to say their piece…and when the need to move forward in a thoughtful but expeditious manner seemed perfectly clear. But this is the Senate.”
No, this is the Senate held hostage to presidential ambition.