McCain Against the ‘Wacko Birds’

by Jonathan Strong
The combative Arizonan goes after the loud new kid, and the grass roots choose their man.

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 and posted a petition against McCain., 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.

Even people one might normally find on Team McCain are a little unsettled by how pitched the battle has become. Senator Lindsey Graham, McCain’s best friend in the Senate, has joined with some of the wacko birds on various bills and letters, for example. 

For a long time, the rap on McCain, a former fighter-jet pilot, has been that he’s mercurial, and he certainly seems to have moved on from his last feud, with Obama. He exhibited a deep disdain for Obama for years after the younger Democrat bested him in the 2008 presidential campaign, but Obama recently hosted McCain at the White House to talk about immigration and other issues, and McCain is now part of a group of Senate Republicans who are trying to forge a budget deal with the president.

The thinking among Senate Republican leaders is that Obama wants to pick off a few Republican senators on the budget issues in order to undermine Speaker John Boehner’s position in the fall, when the debt-ceiling fight will ripen. The question I asked that induced McCain’s mock snore was about exactly this suspicion: Does McCain think the budget talks could cut the legs out from underneath the House Republicans? “Sometimes, I say with typical Senate snobbery, as in immigration reform, the Senate has to lead,” McCain says. “But obviously we would want to work as closely as possible with our colleagues in the House.”

The upcoming debt-ceiling fight is also at the heart of the recent dispute on the Senate floor over the Budget conference committee. Cruz, Paul, and Lee are blocking Reid from appointing members of the conference committee for the budget resolution and demanding that Reid instruct the conference committee that it cannot include an increase to the debt ceiling in any House–Senate agreement on the budget.

McCain has pointed out that budget resolutions are non-binding and not signed by the president, which means that any debt-ceiling agreement that is part of the budget resolution would not have the force of law. Rubio has a sharp retort: If that is so, why is there resistance to including such an instruction?

What makes the whole debate in the Senate irrelevant is that House Republicans are refusing to appoint conferees, saying that the two sides must reach the framework for a deal before the conference committee convenes. Typically, House and Senate leaders reach a deal reconciling the major differences between their bills before the conference committee is convened, and the appointment of conferees is a signal to Washington that such a deal has been reached.

Reid’s move to appoint Senate conferees is plainly a stunt to pressure Boehner to appoint House conferees, payback for the House Republicans’ “no budget, no pay” bill that forced Senate Democrats to pass a budget for the first time in four years. Whether or not Reid pulls it off, House Republicans still aren’t likely to appoint conferees, because doing so would give Nancy Pelosi new authority to force unpleasant votes on the House floor.

And even if the House and Senate did convene a conference committee, House leaders would still have to agree to the substance of a deal with Reid. Without the pressure of a debt-ceiling increase in the near term, a deal with Reid is a virtual impossibility. When that time comes, anything that House conservatives see as a serious “cave” could put Boehner’s job on the line. And that — not a 60-vote threshold in the Senate, as the wacko birds are presuming — is the real reason the debt ceiling won’t be increased without the accompaniment of significant spending cuts.

Cruz offered an analogy on the Senate floor that nicely describes the whole dustup: “In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift told us of two fictional lands — Lilliput and Blefuscu — that had been at war for years over which end of the egg to open first. In Lilliput they opened the big end of the egg, and in Blefuscu they opened the small end of the egg, and the big-enders and little-enders battled endlessly. I am sorry to say that satirical depiction often reflects what occurs in this august body.”

And yet, the overall fight between McCain and the wacko birds couldn’t be more important to the direction of the GOP. Paul has been quietly convening lawmakers at a townhouse owned by the Senate Conservatives Fund, trying to form a bicameral coalition of conservatives on budget issues. Massie and Representatives Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina and Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, along with roughly a dozen House members, were at one of the meetings a  couple of weeks back that was led by Paul.

Given that Paul, Rubio, and Cruz may run for president in 2016, the more restrained or isolationist (depending on your point of view) foreign-policy thinking of the wacko birds will no doubt come under serious scrutiny. One matter that promises to stir the foreign-policy debate is the Obama administration’s zealous seizure of reporters’ phone records, which has alarmed even some strong advocates of executive power. And the debacle of Syria looms larger and larger.

For now, if the conservative grass roots seem to be falling in line behind the wacko birds, even on an issue that might not matter a whole lot, such as the budget-conferees debate, it’s probably because they’ve lost faith with the John McCains of the world.

As Lee put it on the Senate floor:

The unspoken premise of every argument we have heard in favor of going to conference on this budget without conditions is that Congress knows what it is doing. “Trust us — to go into a backroom and cut a deal. Trust us — to ignore special interests and only work for the good of the country. Trust us — to not wait until the eleventh hour, to not hold the full faith and credit of the United States hostage, to not ram through another thousand-page, trillion-dollar bill, sight unseen. Trust us. We’re Congress!” As it happens, the American people don’t trust Congress — or either party. And we have given them at least 17 trillion reasons not to. 

— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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