BEDFORD: A House Divided: The Wacko Birds and their war on DC

Christopher Bedford Former Editor in Chief, The Daily Caller News Foundation
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A new breed in town

There is rebellion afoot in the United States Senate. A new breed of conservatives and libertarians are loosed, unconcerned with The New York Times, unfettered by back-bench rank and unintimidated by Washington politics.

Elected over the past three years, Republican Sens. Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz have had a meteoric impact in Washington, soaring to grassroots stardom, crashing into the Democratic majority and raining down on the old bulls of the Republican Party.

Dubbed “Wacko Birds” by top Republican John McCain, these three wear the senior Arizona senator’s scorn as a badge of honor.

The Democrats and Republican leadership are furious. And it isn’t simply because these young upstarts exist — it’s because they’re scoring real points. Using the difficult and arcane rules of the Senate to their advantage, they have several victories under their belts that have earned them the respect and support of the conservative grassroots. And despite the ire of both parties — and both parties’ well-connected allies in the press — the Wacko Birds continue undeterred.

Their tradition is an old one. Before their arrival in the Senate, now-Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint held the torch, using the rule book to hold fast on conservative principles and frustrate the leadership of both parties. Before DeMint, Sen. Jesse Helms was the rock, twisting Republican arms and forcing Democrats to publicly vote for their agendas. But today is different. Today, the conservative voice isn’t alone in the wilderness, nor is it even limited to these three: The Wacko Birds are finding allies across the GOP, with even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell rushing to their side when politically convenient.

“The opposition to what Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Mike Lee are doing isn’t much about Republicans vs. Democrats,” a senior Wacko Bird aide told The Daily Caller. “It’s about how Washington does things.”

Among their notable and unexpected (though sometimes merely symbolic) victories this year, the Wacko Birds can count the libertarian-energizing drone debate and the grassroots-energizing gun debate. Next on their list: The debt ceiling debate.

By leading the charge to the Senate floor, demanding difficult votes and utilizing the minority’s filibuster power, the three have thrown a wrench in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s Senate steamroller.

“Sen. Paul led the charge on the drones filibuster, and Sen. Cruz was eager to support him, along with Sen. Mike Lee,” Cruz press secretary Catherine Frazier told TheDC. “And on guns legislation, they all announced their intent to filibuster early on in the debate. And now they are taking on the debt ceiling.”

But the three Republicans haven’t only frustrated Reid: Their work to drag bipartisan wheeling-and-dealing into the sunlight has inspired anger, resentment and push back from prominent senators on their own side.

GOP Pushback

Let me be clear: I don’t trust the Republicans, and I don’t trust the Democrats. And I think a whole lot of Americans likewise don’t trust the Republicans and the Democrats because it is leadership in both parties that has gotten us in this mess. – Sen. Ted Cruz, May 23, 2013.

Though they ruffled some Republican hawk feathers with their demands during the debate over President Barack Obama’s drone policy, the Wacko Birds really began to encounter inner-party push back during the emotionally charged gun-control debate. The closed-door fighting reached a pitch when they pushed an old Helms tactic: Force your colleagues to vote, so they can be held accountable.

After their successful effort to get senators who wanted to proceed to vote on the gun-control bill to say so, Cruz told a gathering of grassroots conservatives that the behind-the-scenes Republican anger was a site to behold: “We’ve had probably five or six lunches with a bunch of Republican senators standing up and looking at Rand and Mike and me and yelling at us at the top of their lungs.”

Because being held accountable makes life difficult in the hush-hush world of D.C. politics.

“They said, ‘Listen, before you did this the politics of it were great: The Dems were the bad guys, the Republicans were the good guys. Now we all look like a bunch of squishes,’” Cruz said. “Well, there is an alternative: You can just not be a bunch of squishes.”

“There are many people within the Republican Party who will be quite content to see the background check go past and say, ‘Look we stopped the assault-weapon ban and protected the 2nd Amendment,’” Heritage Action Communications Director Dan Holler told TheDC. “A lot of Republicans — especially the political strategists — would have loved that outcome.”

After taking the Republican lead against Paul’s drone filibuster, McCain joined Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Mark Kirk in voting for the Democrat’s gun-control bill. Not surprisingly, he is a top Republican critic of the Wacko Birds’ battle to drag the House and Senate budget negotiations into the light of day.

“The old bulls, like McCain, know the potential for abuse but, for one reason or another, that’s not the way it’s working,” Heritage Action’s Holler added. “The Republican Party is very disconnected from its base, and Cruz and others — standing up and saying, ‘We need to change how this works’ — they’re connected to their base.”

“It’s a classic example of the newer back-benchers — of tea party members — fighting against the moss-covered older senators who like the way thing are done,” one senior Wacko Bird adviser told TheDC. “McCain has really been digging in, fighting against Cruz, Paul on these issues. He seems to be leading the charge against us. That the guy was the 2008 nomination, it shows that there’s just a huge division in the party.”

But it isn’t just McCain who can’t stand the new kids.

McConnell “just hates Rand Paul,” another senior Wacko Bird staffer told TheDC. “He and Sen. Lindsey Graham are frustrated that we’re mucking up the system and breaking with how they want things done.”

McConnell’s office pushed back hard against the charge that the Senate minority leader hates Sen. Paul, telling TheDC, “This assertion is laughable. Anyone who has any familiarity with their relationship knows the opposite is true.”

“In some respects, it’s a generational divide,” Heritage Action’s Holler mused.

How They Fight

How do you get something bad passed in Washington? You do it fast, you do it under cover of night, you do it when no one can look at it, and you force it through. What they do not want is scrutiny. – Sen. Ted Cruz, April 26, 2013.

A great deal of the Wacko Birds’ effectiveness is due to their successfully navigating the Senate’s complicated rules, even while McCain and others criticize the their disregard for Senate traditions. Procedure, the Wacko Birds understand, is policy; and one reason the country is less free, and is $17 trillion in debt, is because the old procedures allowed it.

In the debate over gun control, the three lead the charge to push the Senate to vote to proceed (called a cloture vote) in an effort to flush out the Republicans and red-state Democrats who were open to possibly voting for gun control – or at least which senators they could be sure were on their side.

The vote “allowed outside groups to identify the wobbly members and go after them,” a senior Wacko Bird aide told TheDC. “And but for the cloture vote, the outside groups would not have had that opportunity to go after people.”

And in the current debate over the budget, the Wacko Birds, joined by Sen. Marco Rubio and others, have taken flak from McCain, his allies and the media over stopping the bill from going to conference. Once in conference, Senate budget Chairwoman Patty Murray and House budget Chairman Paul Ryan would make a closed-door agreement, select conferees to approve it and then bring it forth as a take-it-or-leave-it deal that could potentially include an unconditional increase in the debt ceiling.

Some on the right see the Wacko Birds’ success in holding up this effort as proof that a majority of Republicans are against an unconditional debt-ceiling hike: “It’s sort of amazing that the media painted the refusal to go to conference on the budget as Cruz, Lee and Paul obstructionism,” Heritage Action’s Holler told TheDC. “The whole party is on the budget side movement: McConnell is behind it, and the House hasn’t appointed any conferees.”

But some aren’t so quick to give their fellow Republicans a pass.

“It’s totally complete bullshit. The whole thing is bullshit,” one senior staffer with the Wacko Birds told TheDC. “Ryan and Patty Murray are meeting right now. They don’t have conferees because Ryan needs to work it out first, then he goes and says, ‘Who can vote for this?’ and whoever can vote for it gets selected.”

“And 99 percent of the budget deal happens between the two chairman,” the staffer explained. “Then they all come up with a grand bargain, dollar for dollar, whatever their stupid ask is, and then they come back — no amendments, no negotiations. (And the idea that Ryan and Murray will do this in front of the C-SPAN cameras is absurd.) Then they airdrop this stuff into these budget committees.”

Indeed, Roll Call reports that Speaker of the House John Boehner said, “Sen. Murray and Chairman Ryan have been having their initial conversation. We don’t typically to go conference until such a time as it appears that they’re well on their way. If their conversations continue, we get somewhere, we’re going to go.”

“Jim DeMint would not allow conference committees,” a senior Wacko Bird aide told TheDC, “and the reason you don’t like conferences is you get these members in a closed room and they can rewrite a bill in conference that doesn’t have much semblance to the Senate and House bills, and then it’s a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. What Lee, Paul and Cruz are doing right now is in the same vein. They’re using the Senate’s rules to protect against big government and they’re protecting it against both parties.”

“‘That’s the way we’ve always done it’ is not going to work with us,” Lee Communications Director Brian Phillips told TheDC.

And just as when DeMint disrupted Senate procedure, the push back from both parties is harsh: Lee, Cruz and Paul have been continuously attacked as either malicious liars, or too stupid to understand the ways of the Senate.

“For [Lee] to say this is a backroom, closed-door deal, either he is directly misleading or has no knowledge of how the budget conference works,” McCain said May 23 on the Senate floor as Lee stood nearby. “I don’t know which one it is and I don’t know which one is worse.”

McCain “is the embodiment of the establishment,” one senior Wacko Bird staffer told TheDC, “and there’s no better depiction of that than Mr. McCain taking to the floor to defend the old ways of doing things against his own party. Why? Because they’re the ones who run it.”

And the media is complicit, Club for Growth Communications Director Brian Keller told TheDC: They’re jumping on the pile-on “because they miss the good old days when the Senate would come together and decide how much they’re going to grow government. Now they are being held accountable, and that’s clearly frustrating.”

And it’s here that the Wacko Birds can learn another lesson from their predecessor, “Senator No.”

“When asked if he’d read what the New York Times said about him, Jesse Helms used to reply, ‘Well, I don’t read the New York Times and I don’t know anybody who does read the New York Times,’” Dr. Lee Edwards, an historian of the conservative movement at the Heritage Foundation, told TheDC. “So I would hope that Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and the others would take a page out of Helms’ book and not spend too much time paying attention to the press, and stand for something. In the long run, you’ll come out on top.”

How They Win

It has been suggested that those of us who are fighting to defend liberty, fighting to turn around the out of control spending and the out of control debt in this country, fighting to defend the constitution — it has been suggested that we are Wacko Birds.  Well, if that is the case, I will suggest to my friend from Arizona there may be more Wacko Birds in the Senate than is suspected. – Sen. Ted Cruz, May 23, 2013.

For decades, conservatives from Helms to DeMint have been thorns in leadership’s side, standing up — and standing alone — for their principles. But the Wacko Birds aren’t alone: They’re at the head of a growing number of senators.

“A lot of [Republican senators] have stood with them, especially when you look at guns legislation,” Cruz press secretary Frazier told TheDC. “You saw a lot of folks join them in demanding a higher vote threshold, and even more, on both sides of the aisle, that eventually voted against the final legislation. I think that support was a huge part of constituents joining in this fight to make their voices heard.”

And the Wacko Birds expect that other senators will eventually come around – including some who haven’t before.

Other supportive senators frequently mentioned in interviews with TheDC include Republicans Marco Rubio, Ron Johnson, Pat Toomey and Jeff Flake – all of whom, Club for Growth Communications Director Barney Keller said, “are fighting for economic freedom.”

“Helms and DeMint, and now the three, are the kind of senators who put principle first over politics, and when you do that you upset those who always put politics over principle,” Heritage’s Dr. Edwards told TheDC. “The big difference is that Jesse, and then more recently Jim DeMint, were pretty much alone — pretty much were lonely voices crying out — whereas today you have not just one but a group of Young Turks who are willing to stand up and, therefore, they draw strength from each other. And this infuriates and angers the politicians all the more.”

And the impact is visible.

“They’ve forced better behavior for the Republicans, which in turn forces better behavior from the Democrats,” Club for Growth’s Keller told TheDC. “Every Republican senator knows why Ted Cruz is there, not [David] Dewhurst; why Rubio, not [Charlie] Crist; why Toomey, not [Arlen] Specter. Now they’re held accountable and they know who’s leading the charge, so there’s a ripple effect for the election of someone like that. Just look at Orrin Hatch after Mike Lee won — he is a liberal Republican who started voting to the right of Jim DeMint.”

Republicans better wise up. Conservatives and libertarians won’t be able to agree on every stance that Lee, Paul and Cruz make, but anyone concerned with the direction the United States has been going for the past 80 years can agree that business as usual cannot continue.

In 2010, the Tea Party rose up, and though concerned Americans no longer march in the streets, their representatives walk in the halls of the Senate. And just like when the Tea Party disrupted business as usual, Washington politicians and their friends in the media are on the attack.

But a senator is harder to disregard than a voter; three senators are harder to disregard than one; and more are on the way. And as the Democrats become more progressive, and the Republican Party becomes more conservative, the politicians who cling to Washington before principle will find themselves increasingly isolated.

In the Senate, principled conservatives have come in from the wilderness, and are now more than just a presence in the room; so let the old bulls enjoy the cold.

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This article has been updated to include comment from McConnell’s office.