WASHINGTON – It was a strange spectacle Thursday: The fiscally conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board blasted Republicans for trying to stop Democrats from increasing federal government spending.
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The bizarre role reversal is a part of an intense debate within the Republican Party over fundamental strategy.
The latest battle on Capitol Hill has reignited a sharp division within the GOP over the best way to confront the Obama administration, after 28 GOP senators voted with Democrats to lift the debt ceiling until March 15, 2015, clearing the way for an estimated $700 billion in new spending.
The Democrats could not have increased spending without the help of GOP leadership.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, refused to allow Senate leaders to waive the Senate's regular order requiring 60 votes to proceed, which would have allowed it to proceed with 51 votes, after it passed in the House of Representatives. The Democrats only have 53 senators, so they could not have lifted the debt ceiling without the GOP votes, which Republican leadership delivered.
But the Wall Street Journal editorial page, considered a conservative outlet, didn't find any problem with GOP leaders voting to raise the nation's astronomical debt even further.
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Instead, the paper published a scathing editorial blasting Cruz, the senator trying to stop the spending increase.
The Journal essentially argued that the battle was lost before it began, and accused Cruz of forcing a "meaningless vote" in a "needless drama" on a measure "Cruz knew he couldn't stop."
Cruz fired back, telling talk show host Mark Levin Thursday night, “In the 13 months I have been in the Senate, it has become apparent to me that the single thing that Republican politicians hate and fear the most is when they are forced to tell the truth. It makes their head explode. The debt ceiling vote was the perfect example. They all wanted a perfect show vote."
The Texan even questioned the commitment of some in the GOP to basic conservative principles.
"Make no mistake about it. This was their desired outcome. An awful lot of Republicans wanted exactly what Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid wanted, which is to raise the debt ceiling," said Cruz. "But, they wanted to be able to tell what they view as their foolish gullible constituents that they didn't do it, and they're mad because by my refusing to consent to (a 51-threshold cloture vote) they had to come out in the open and admit to that."
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He wasn't finished.
When Levin asked, "When will Republicans listen?" Cruz answered unequivocally, "The answer is never. If we wait on the entrenched politicians in Washington, hell will freeze over before that happens. This is nothing new. The answers come from America, from millions of people standing up and holding elected officials accountable."
The war of words is an escalation in tensions between the old guard and the new guard in the GOP, who may be united more by what they agree upon, but are still sharply divided over strategy.
The old guard is represented by more moderate, establishment Republicans who occupy leadership positions in the House and the Senate. The new guard is represented by younger, more conservative, and more recently elected, lawmakers such as Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Cruz, who draw most of their support from grassroots conservatives and tea-party groups.
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WND got a behind-the-scenes look at how the new guard sees the differences in those two strategies from a conservative source familiar with the debate.
The essential differences were described as this:
- The old guard believes that the GOP wins by staying quiet and letting the Democrats screw up. It is a cautious approach similar to a "prevent defense" in football, designed to make the other team make all the bold moves. It is non-confrontational.
- The new guard believes in being assertive; standing up for what they believe in and fighting with every tool at their disposal; being candid, forthright and honest; and making a strong case at every turn.
On the debt fight, the new guard felt there was every reason to make the case that the lifting of the debt ceiling should be accompanied by fundamental structural reforms, particularly those that would lower spending.
They point to polls showing strong numbers of Republican and independent voters supporting cuts in spending as part of a debt ceiling increase.
They felt the "clean" debt-ceiling bill should never even have passed by the House, and, indeed, it violated the very rule House Speaker John Boehner named after himself.
The Boehner rule was: "Any increase in the nation's debt ceiling would be accompanied by an equal dose of spending cuts." But on the day the speaker announced he would let the bill lifting the debt ceiling come up for a vote without attaching any conditions, ABC News ran a story headlined "The Day the Boehner Rule Died."
Boehner's reasoning was that the best strategy to win the 2014 midterm elections would be to avoid another heated debate with Democrats on the debt and keep the focus on the disaster that is Obamacare.
The Journal agreed, only in more caustic terms, maintaining, "If Republicans fail again this November, a big reason will be their rump kamikaze caucus."
But the new guard believes history has shown the best way to win a midterm election is to have a motivated base, and that the base is disgusted with the capitulations by the GOP leaders. The source told WND that is especially true when it comes to the debt issue.
"When I told Texans when I ran for office that I'm going to fight with every ounce of strength I have to try to pull this country back from this fiscal and economic cliff, I wasn't lying to them. I meant it. So if you ask me, will I consent to let Harry Reid do this on 51 votes, the answer was no …. And Republicans heads exploded," said Cruz.
The old guard believed the Democrats were salivating at the prospect of another opportunity to blame the GOP for gridlock, as the left did during the government shutdown. The Journal even accused Cruz of doing "exactly what Democratic leader (Sen. Majority Leader) Harry Reid (D-Nev.)" wanted.
However, that school of thought was contradicted by none other than House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who, according to the Washington Post, privately told fellow Democrats not to "gloat" that they had managed to get the GOP to go along with raising the debt limit without a fight and without conditions.
The new generation of Republican leaders feel that choosing not to fight is a self-fulfilling prophecy: If the GOP keeps deciding it can't win any fights, it won't, and crucial margins of potential GOP voters will stay home in November as they did in 2012.
They believe there is no way they could not have opposed the unconditional lifting of the debt ceiling because their constituents sent them to Washington to abide by core conservative beliefs, and because it would have violated their most basic principles.
The new guard also believed the GOP was squandering the one tactical advantage the minority has. The Senate's rules give minorities significant leverage due to the 60-vote threshold known as a cloture motion, a vote to cut off debate and allow a simple majority vote.
The senators who fought to prevent the debt-ceiling increase felt it should not have even come to a blunt confrontation, and that it was not they who put the 28 senators who voted for it in an awkward position. The new guard believed it was the GOP leadership who put those senators in an awkward position by asking them to consent to stand down on the debt ceiling rather than fighting for spending reforms.
Letting the Democrats have their way without offering any resistance was termed unacceptable, especially following recent passage of the Ryan-Murray budget which eliminated much of the spending restraint won in the last debt-ceiling fight.
Resistance to the status quo was evidenced most notably in the effort spearheaded by Cruz and Lee in October to remove funding for Obamacare as a condition to pass a continuing resolution keeping the government funded, which Democrats responded to by letting the government shut down when the deadline passed and funding expired.
When the mainstream media adopted the administration's line of blaming Republicans for the shutdown, GOP leaders eventually capitulated and passed the funding bill.
Even though, by the end, some Republicans were no longer demanding the defunding of Obamacare, or even the delaying of its implementation by a year, but merely asking that Congress and the executive branch be required to subscribe to Obamacare, the GOP leadership felt pressured to concede the battle, although there was nothing legally requiring them to ever surrender.
The new guard felt a lot of the GOP simply forfeited the fight to defund Obamacare because they maintained the 2012 election had decided the issue. Indeed, just before the shutdown began on Oct. 1, 2013, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took to the Senate floor to tell his GOP colleagues that the debate was over because "the people spoke" on Obamacare when they reelected Obama and rejected GOP candidate Mitt Romney.
However, once Obamacare quickly proved disastrous, and the tide of public opinion had shifted demonstrably and dramatically against the health-care law, McCain introduced his own bill to repeal Obamacare on Dec. 13, 2013, calling the law a "horrendous mistake" that the "American people do not believe in."
Cruz implied the issue runs deeper than mere strategic differences, telling Levin, "A few months ago, when we were fighting trying to stop the disaster that is Obamacare, where a lot of Washington gray beards said, 'we are going to fight on the debt ceiling. That's where the fight will be…' It's like they think the American people are a bunch of rubes, we don't remember what they say."
The infighting has caused critics to accuse the GOP of running a circular firing squad and squandering its energies on battling each other instead of the opposition.
In fact, the Journal said Cruz' effort to stop the lifting of the debt ceiling made GOP leaders Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, "walk the plank."
Lee played down the drama, telling the Guardian procedural differences in the GOP are "nothing new."
And, the conservative source told WND the problem isn't GOP infighting; it's that Republicans are simply not sticking together to fight for smart causes, and thereby forfeiting all the power they have, which is considerable. That was portrayed as not what the constituents want and not what the lawmakers were sent to Washington to do.
After the vote, Cruz told reporters it should have been a very easy vote, because, "In my view, every Senate Republican should have stood together."
Thursday night, he said, "If 41 Republicans had stood together and just voted no, the clean debt ceiling, the blank check for President Obama and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi want would have been denied. And for all of them who say I am just a crazy rebel, the last 55 times the debt ceiling has been increased, Congress has attached meaningful conditions to it 28 of those times.... it's the only leverage point that has ever been effective."
There was more stinging criticism of both McConnell and Cornyn from conservatives for their votes for cloture, albeit, the harshest comments came from men running against them.
"Kentucky and America can literally no longer afford such financially reckless behavior from the likes of Mitch McConnell," said Matt Bevin, a tea-party candidate who is challenging McConnell in the Kentucky primary.
And Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, who is running in the primary against Cornyn, tweeted, "Some of us stand and fight for principle because quitting is easy. Some, like John Cornyn, quit because fighting is hard." And, "We're swamped in messages from folks saying they're no longer supporting Cornyn and are supporting Steve Stockman."
Cruz said the issue really should not even pit Republicans against Democrats, because, “If you ask any American, 'should we live within our means, should we stop racking up massive debts that are bankrupting our kids,' the answer is of course. This is not a partisan issue. This is basic common sense, and every one of those senators who's angry, when they go back home, they tell their constituents they're doing everything they can to stop it, but they don't actually do what they're saying."
Follow Garth Kant on twitter @DCgarth