Ted Cruz
The idea of Senate Republican division is a “cute narrative,” said Sen. Ted Cruz. Al Drago/AP

Senate Hard-Liners Insist They’re Not Headed Toward House-Level Chaos

The latest bipartisan spending bill is getting pushback from Senate Republican conservatives. It’s the new business as usual.

The Republican leader is soon to be out. A bipartisan border deal is dead. A rogue lawmaker is threatening to hold up the must-pass budget deal. But still, Republican senators insist they are nothing like the House.

Even Sen. Ted Cruz, who has been a leading critic of departing Republican leader Mitch McConnell, waved off accusations that the Senate mirrors House dysfunction. He called the idea of Senate Republican division a “cute” narrative pushed by reporters.

Despite an open rebellion from the party’s right flank in recent years, even the more moderate Republican senators say they aren’t concerned about party cohesion once McConnell’s gone.

“I think there’s always an obstructionist element in both parties. I think it ebbs and flows from election to election, but no more or no less in the nearly 10 years that I’ve been here,” Sen. Thom Tillis said.

Sen. James Lankford, who led the Republican side of the failed border negotiation, said he wasn’t worried. When asked if he was concerned the next leader couldn’t keep the party together, he said with confidence, “No, I’m not. We’ll figure that out.”

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The Senate has long been considered the more predictable and bipartisan chamber. Many senators look upon the House GOP chaos with predictable snobbery, content to keep the peace with their colleagues. But recently, Republican caucus discussions have been tense and devolved into ideological disagreement.

Some Republican senators want a slew of changes that would break some power away from the leadership, including term limits, decentralized control of what comes to the floor and a return to regular order, where bills go through committee and members can debate amendments.

Differences over politics were part of what inspired McConnell to announce he’d step down after 17 years at the helm. Whoever is selected as McConnell’s replacement will have to contend with those disagreements — and, if the conference gets its wishes, could have even less power to quell them.

Just this week, hours after Republican senators held what Sen. Ron Johnson called a “very positive” meeting to discuss their process for picking a new leader, congressional leaders unveiled a new spending measure. Lawmakers will have very little time to review it before the deadline to avoid a partial government shutdown. Sen. Rand Paul vowed to delay the bill, and it’s the exact type of leadership-down decision-making that has roiled the Senate’s right.

Sen. Mike Braun, who opposed McConnell in the last leadership election, said the Senate has become “slower and more dysfunctional” in recent years and that new leadership could turn that around.

“The people that have been running the show over the last couple of decades, they’re borrowing money from our kids and grandkids and can’t get anything done on time,” he said. “That means you need something new.”

But that does not mean chaos, many argued.

“Our base, but also a lot of swing voters, don’t like it when we just yell at each other and don’t get anything done,” Sen. J.D. Vance said. “They actually want us to do something.”

Some level of chaos might just be par for the course. Asked if the Senate GOP risked becoming like the House, Sen. Tommy Tuberville said, “Probably.”

“You’re going to have problems on both sides no matter who’s up here,” he said. “I mean, you’ve got too many people involved.”

Casey Murray and Claire Heddles are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows. John T. Seward, a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow, contributed reporting.