The debate was over, but John McCain wasn’t done. After he threw down with a trio of younger Republican colleagues he has dubbed the “wacko birds,” McCain proceeded to walk around the Senate floor, ranting about the interchange to individual senators.
McCain was incensed that Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee have been blocking Democratic majority leader Harry Reid from appointing Senate members to a conference committee for the budget resolution. During the debate, McCain “basically accused Lee of being an idiot,” as one aide put it. Lee was either being “directly misleading or has no knowledge of how the budget conference works,” McCain said, adding, “I don’t know which one it is, and I don’t know which one is worse.”
Democrats rushed to the floor to join what they obviously saw as a fun chance to pile on. McCain asked Senator Patty Murray questions designed to make Lee look ridiculous, which she answered with glee. McCain even threw Senator Marco Rubio — his fellow Gang of Eight member on immigration — under the bus when Rubio sided with Lee. “One has to then question what the knowledge of those who are advocating this is about fundamental procedures,” he said in response to Rubio.
Only two days earlier, the topic of the budget had sent McCain into a bout of histrionics: When I questioned him about the issue, he closed his eyes and pretended to snore to show how bored he was. “We’ve talked and talked and talked and talked and talked and talked. We have talked endlessly, and we will continue to talk,” McCain said. “I love meetings. I enjoy meetings. It makes my day when my staff comes and says we’re going to have another meeting to talk about the grand bargain and that’s about the 375th meeting I have attended,” he said.
The main difference on the floor later that week was that the moment presented a chance to take on the wacko birds. “There’s never been a saloon fight that he didn’t enjoy, even if he didn’t need to participate. I think that brings great joy to him,” says longtime McCain confidant John Weaver.
Weaver notes that McCain’s core policy disputes with the wacko birds are over foreign policy and that their feud really began with Paul’s filibuster over President Barack Obama’s drone policies. McCain panned the filibuster as a “disservice to a lot of Americans.”
“I know that he and other senators — and I’ve talked to a number of senators — are concerned about a growing isolationist wing within our caucus in the House and the Senate and in our party in general, which gets away from roots that we have in our party,” Weaver says.
“If you talk to young Republicans or Republicans who are newly elected to office, they overwhelmingly care about civil liberties to a much higher degree than Republicans of a past generation, and I think that’s a big source of friction within the party,” says Representative Justin Amash of Michigan.
In the original Huffington Post interview in which he introduced the term “wacko birds,” McCain listed Amash, Cruz, and Paul as prime examples. He later apologized, but the targets of his ire were delighted. Amash registered WackoBird.com and posted a petition against McCain. WackoBirds.com, plural, is real estate owned by the Senate Conservatives Fund, which asks users to sign a petition to become a “proud wacko bird.” Representative Thomas Massie, another libertarian-leaning Republican who is close with Paul, his fellow Kentuckian, says, “I’m somewhat jealous I didn’t get added to the list.”
Massie describes the feud between McCain and the wacko birds as the same one that existed between former senator Jim DeMint and the GOP establishment before DeMint decamped for the Heritage Foundation. “I see this as a continuation of that battle, except the numbers are more in our favor now, even though Senator DeMint went to Heritage,” Massie says. “I see Rand as carrying the torch that DeMint lit.”
But there’s something else to the fight beyond policy disagreements. “Some of it comes down to style differences. Perhaps it’s a maverick seeing another maverick — you know, generationally,” Weaver says, referring to Cruz. “I don’t know. I think most of it is policy driven.”
“McCain is one of the few senators who relishes the battle and isn’t afraid of a fight. The same could probably be said of Cruz, so we’re seeing some fireworks on the floor,” a McCain aide says, while dismissing as “nonsense” the notion that Cruz is a fellow maverick.