By: Scott Wong
July 5, 2011 11:29 PM EDT
Six months into their first term, a band of Republican freshmen are fed up with the tortoise pace of the Senate and have resorted to guerrilla warfare to take on the establishment — and it’s causing headaches for leaders of both parties.
Sen. Ron Johnson, who unseated Democratic Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold last November, mounted a protest last week against Democrats’ failure to produce a budget — an effort that culminated Tuesday when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was forced to yank a bipartisan Libya resolution from the floor.
Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky firebrand and tea-party favorite, warned this weekend he would filibuster in an attempt to pry open closed-door debt ceiling negotiations.
And a key reason that the Senate is in session during what should be the chamber’s Fourth of July recess? Freshman GOP senators, including Johnson, Paul, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Marco Rubio of Florida, threatened a recess revolt that would force both parties to take an embarrassing vote to skip town.
The new breed of troublemaker creates problems for Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. They must now deal with an unpredictable, angst-ridden crowd uninterested in the pay-your-dues tradition of the Senate at the same time they’re engaged in tense negotiations over the debt ceiling.
“I think different freshmen have different challenges in adjusting,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who was elected last November to fill Joe Biden’s old Senate seat. “I’ve watched as a number of freshman senators — Paul and Sen. Johnson would be examples — decide to throw their oars in the water and express their frustration about particular amendments, procedural points and not being heard by throwing up a hand and stopping the work.
“Pretty quickly that seems to teach a harsh lesson about upsetting not just the other caucus but your own caucus,” Coons said.
Last week, Johnson didn’t bother giving his GOP colleagues a heads up before he stormed onto the Senate floor and warned that he would block all Senate business until Democrats started debating the budget.
Surprised Republican leaders, while sympathetic to the Wisconsinite’s concerns, pulled the rookie aside and urged him to take a less draconian approach, sources said. The plastics manufacturer and political neophyte quickly relented, but he warned he’d object again to routine “unanimous consent” requests if Democrats didn’t change their ways.
He made good on his word Thursday night, objecting to Reid’s request to move directly to a vote on a resolution by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Aiz.) that would authorize limited U.S. military operations in Libya. And he issued new threats in a TV interview Tuesday morning even as fellow GOP senators were whipping a cloture vote on the Libya measure.
By that afternoon, the entire 47-member Republican caucus had vowed to vote against the Libya resolution, saying the Senate should focus only on budget matters this week. With the resolution doomed to fail, Reid canceled the vote, saying he and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreed that “the most important thing for us to focus on this week is the budget.”
But Reid quickly scheduled a separate vote Wednesday on a nonbinding resolution expressing that millionaires should make “a more meaningful contribution to the deficit-reduction effort,” a proposal panned by Ayotte as a “political stunt on behalf of the majority leader.”
“The United States Senate has not passed a budget in over two years. And I’ve certainly understood how broken Washington is,” Johnson told reporters after Reid scrapped the Libya vote. “The Senate is basically fiddling as America goes bankrupt.”
Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) is expected to preview his fiscal 2012 budget blueprint to his caucus on Wednesday. But he’s reluctant to have the committee or full Senate take up the proposal until a bipartisan deal is reached to raise the debt ceiling before the U.S. reaches its legal borrowing limit on Aug. 2. That explanation hasn’t appeased Johnson, a committee member.
“Last week was a warning,” Johnson later told POLITICO. “I was putting the Senate on notice that unless they start taking these issues up, I’ll withhold my consent. I will make it very difficult to operate the Senate.”
Johnson hasn’t been the only one stirring the pot. In a C-SPAN interview over the weekend, Paul, a co-founder of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, said he would mount a filibuster until the chamber began addressing the nation’s debt crisis. He cheered Reid’s decision to scrap the Libya vote.
“Last week a group of us said, ‘No more.’ We do not want to discuss anything else until we start discussing solutions for the debt, solutions for the looming debt crisis. We said, ‘No more,’” Paul said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Today, we will win and draw attention back to the debt ceiling. We’re not going to talk about anything until we resolve this.”
But Paul and other freshmen have been putting McConnell in a tricky spot as he and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) try to hash out a deal with the White House on raising the debt limit. Paul, Johnson, Rubio and nine other senators who have signed the so-called Cap, Cut, Balance pledge, said they’ll vote to raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling only if Congress passes a balanced budget amendment and other significant spending reforms first.
GOP aides said that McConnell backs a constitutional amendment requiring the government to balance its books each year and that the minority leader is pushing for a vote on the proposal the week of July 18.
But McConnell has resisted efforts to link the amendment with a debt hike, especially given the reality the amendment lacks the 67 votes needed for passage. That position was evident during a GOP news conference McConnell led last week: More than a dozen senators lined up to promote the balanced budget amendment, but not one mentioned the Cut, Cap, Balance pledge.
“Would I prefer that all members of my party felt the same way … that I do about the Cut, Cap and Balance pledge? The answer is yes,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), another co-founder of the Tea Party Caucus and a staunch supporter of the pledge. “That said, I’m happy with any degree of enthusiasm that there is for the balanced budget amendment, and anything that will help move it forward is a good thing.”
Many of these freshman hope to rally support for their proposal this week, something that would not have been possible had Reid not cancelled the Fourth of July recess — the first time that’s happened since the Watergate scandal.
Rubio, another tea party darling, who defeated favored Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in last year’s GOP primary and went on to win the Senate seat, was one of a handful of freshman who joined senior Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) in pressuring Reid last week not to adjourn.
“This debt thing didn’t sneak up on us. We’ve known about it for months,” Rubio told POLITICO. “I’m just shocked that it’s taken this long to even begin to have this level of anxiety about it. This lack of sense of urgency with regard to these issues is trouble, startling, so I hope that will start to change.
“It’s a good thing that we’ll have to be here,” he added. “It’s a better thing if we actually do something while we’re here.”