Faced with the possibility of Republicans being blamed for another government shutdown, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell chose responsible government over a move advocated by Tea Party Republicans led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. In so doing, the Kentucky Republican who is being challenged by Louisville businessman Matt Bevin in the May primary in his bid to be elected to a sixth six-year Senate term may have lost some support among Tea Party Republicans but he should have earned the appreciation of Kentuckians tired of a dysfunctional Congress that seems to be always bringing our government to the brink of financial collapse.
At issue this time around was legislation to raise the nation’s borrowing authority with no strings attached. The bill was short of the 60 votes it needed to advance — a threshold Cruz demanded — and without a few conversions, Republicans would be blamed for its failure.
After a long delay, a grim-faced McConnell finally voted yes. An equally grim-faced Sen. John Cornyn, the party’s No. 2 leader and Cruz’s Texas colleague, changed his vote from no to yes.
Cruz showed no mercy in exposing Republican leaders to widespread criticism from their primary challengers over a procedural vote on the debt limit after their pronouncements about the imperative of spending cuts. It could have been a simple 50-vote requirement, with Democrats delivering the votes to lift the debt limit, but Cruz insisted.
After McConnell and Cornyn opposed his move, Cruz was unapologetic.
“It should have been a very easy vote,” Cruz, a first-term senator, told reporters. “In my view, every Senate Republican should have stood together.” He added the verdict on McConnell “is ultimately a decision ... for the voters in Kentucky.”
Of course, Bevin seized the opportunity to criticize McConnell.
“Kentucky and America can literally no longer afford such financially reckless behavior from the likes of Mitch McConnell,” Bevin said in a statement.
The Madison Project, a conservative group backing Bevin, accused McConnell of giving President Barack Obama “a blank check.” That’s nonsense. Just because McConnell prefers to keep government running rather than preventing it from borrowing money to pay its bills hardly represents a “blank check.” Ultimately, Congress still controls government spending.
Ironically, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where the Tea Party wing of the GOP has more strength than in the Senate, had already approved lifting the debt limit with no strings attached prior to Wednesday’s Senate vote. Apparently, House GOP members had received enough criticism from their constituents about last fall’s government shutdown to not repeat that action.
Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, share much of the blame for precipitating the 16-day government shutdown with their demand that President Obama gut his 3-year-old health-care law. The quest had the backing of the Senate Conservatives Fund and other outside groups that raised millions during the process — and spent a good chunk of it to boost GOP challengers such as Bevin and Chris McDaniel, who is running against Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran.
Learning from the negative impact of the shutdown on their support, Republicans are intent on avoiding the drama of market-rattling fiscal fights, especially in an election year in which the party sees a legitimate shot at adding Senate control to their majority in the House. But Cruz is unwilling to step back from the fight, even if it undercuts his party’s strategy.
“Today was a classic victory for Washington establishment interests, and the people who lost today are the American people,” Cruz said after the vote.
But Republican Sens. Bob Corker and John McCain praised the courage of McConnell and Cornyn, who avoided days of uncertainty over whether the nation might default.
“People will see McConnell and Cornyn voted in a responsible way,” Corker said.
Indeed they did.