WASHINGTON – Growing tensions within the Republican Party over the influence of tea party groups boiled over on the Senate floor Thursday as a leading GOP senator accused two conservative colleagues of letting their personal ambitions stand in the way of achieving the party’s goals.
The angry exchange marked an extraordinary departure from the elaborate courtesies that usually cloak Senate debate. It began with an effort by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to speed up votes on a spending bill passed last week by the House. If Congress does not pass the bill by the end of the day Monday, government agencies will begin shutting down.
Reid sought agreement to hold the votes this evening in an effort to get the bill back to the House quickly. The request, which required unanimous agreement, was rebuffed by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), one of a group of tea party-backed senators who have insisted that Republicans oppose any spending bill unless it cuts off money to implement President Obama’s healthcare law.
“Every minute that goes by is a minute closer to a government shutdown,” Reid said. “Unless it’s maybe that someone thinks that they can come and with their great speaking ability tomorrow change everything, everybody in this body knows how the votes are going to go.”
Lee offered to allow the Senate to vote Friday. The American people are closely watching the process, he said, and they expect the votes to occur then.
After an exasperated Reid sat down, Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee took the floor and suggested that the reason Lee and his ally, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), wanted to wait until Friday for the votes was because they, along with outside conservative groups, had advertised Friday as the decisive day.
The two wanted a big audience watching their floor speeches, Corker implied, even if that left Republicans in the House little time to respond to the Senate’s vote.
“Is it more important to the senator from Texas and the senator from Utah that the people around the country watch this vote, or is it more important to us that we have a good policy outcome from our standpoint?” he asked.
Making the Friday votes into a “show” for the benefit of conservative interest groups, Corker added, is not “in our nation’s interests – nor is it, candidly, in the interests of those who want to see good policy on the conservative side.”
Cruz responded by questioning why Corker and other Republicans planned to vote to allow the bill to move forward. Currently, the measure would cut off money for Obamacare, but Democrats have the votes to eliminate that part of the bill once procedural hurdles are overcome.
Corker pointed out that the rules of the Senate have been in place for years – suggesting, as Cruz had done a week earlier, that there was little use in blocking the bill further.
“I think the senator from Texas may be confused,” he said at one point.
The back-and-forth was ultimately cut off by a time limit. But a few minutes later, a visibly angry Lee defended himself to reporters just outside the Senate chamber.
“I don’t have the ability to know what’s in another person’s mind. I don’t ever claim the ability to tell anyone else much less the entire world why someone’s doing what they’re doing. So when someone purports to have that ability in respect to why I’m doing something…,” he said, trailing off.
Cruz said it was “unfortunate that any member of the United States Senate should want our votes to occur outside the view of the American people.” He said he and Lee were already offering compromise by speeding up the vote from Saturday to Friday.
“Friday is the appropriate time where the American people can be engaged. And this is not a routine vote,” he said. “This is a vote to determine whether the U.S. Senate is going to give Harry Reid the authority to fund Obamacare. And that is an issue of considerable interest to a great many Americans.”
Democratic leaders who had sat watching as the debate among Republicans unfolded quickly rose to reinforce Corker’s points.
“We’re delaying our actions here for a full day so that [Lee and Cruz] can get adequate publicity for what they’re about to do,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). “That’s not in our nation’s interest.”