Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 28, 2014.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Republicans in the fire over debt votes

Updated

After voting to shut down a filibuster on raising the debt ceiling—effectively preventing the government from defaulting on its debts—Republicans are under fire from the far-right.

All Senate Republicans voted against hiking the debt limit, but 12 crucially sided with Democrats to cut off Sen. Ted Cruz’ filibuster. Many Republicans switched their vote at the same time, so they wouldn’t have to take on the blame as the “deciding vote.”

Two Republicans facing 2014 re-election battles—Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Sen. Mitch McConnell—are being particularly hit hard from the right for leading that switch.

“Kentucky and America can literally no longer afford such financially reckless behavior from the likes of Mitch McConnell,” the Senate Minority Leader’s tea party challenger Matt Bevin said on Wednesday in a statement after the vote.

McConnell is facing perhaps the toughest, two-sided re-election battle of his decades long career: on the right, Bevin has the support of major tea party groups and a hold on the Kentucky’s grassroots tea party effort and on the left is an unusually viable Democratic candidate, state Secretary of State Allison Lundergan-Grimes. She’s leading McConnell by four points, according to a recent poll. 

It’s voting battles like this one that are powerful for an underdog like Bevin, who holds 29% of Kentucky Republican’s votes in a recent poll (down double digits from McConnell’s 55%) and it could throw a wrench in McConnell’s fate.

Texas’ Ted Cruz, the tea party’s most vocal leader in the Senate, condemned all who sided against him.

“It should have been a very easy vote,” Cruz told reporters after the vote. “In my view, every Senate Republican should have stood together.”

He particularly suggested that McConnell’s fate as leader of the party in the Senate was in question, saying simply that it “is ultimately a decision…for the voters in Kentucky.”

The Senate Conservatives Fund—a group McConnell has openly condemned as being manipulative toward conservative voters—released a punishing ad saying that the Kentucky incumbent had tried to “bully” and “silence” conservatives on the debt limit.

 

“If he wants to vote like a Democrat, he can become a Democrat,” the narrator says at the close of the ad. “But don’t try to fool conservatives by pretending you’re one of us, Senator McConnell. You’re not.”

McConnell may be playing the long-game—while he’s trumping Bevin in polls, he’s vulnerable on the left to Lundergan-Grimes, who skewered the Senate minority leader during the last government shutdown when he voted with his party to defund Obamacare, votes that effectively shuttered the government for 16 days.

“Playing with the debt ceiling is like playing with fire,” New York Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer said on Morning Joe, adding that he believed the GOP knew it needed to be raised even if they do want to reduce the debt. “I think it actually would help Boehner and McConnell in their caucus.”

Down in Texas, Sen. John Cornyn is also facing the ire of the far-right.

The senator’s tea party challenger–Rep. Steve Stockman tweeted a handful of messages opposing Cornyn’s vote to shut down Sen. Cruz’s filibuster of the debt ceiling hike.

Stockman is unlikely to trump Cornyn—his campaign website’s splash page boldly asks, Should I Impeach the President? and in December, polls showed Cornyn up by 44 points.

Cornyn defended himself by reminding that he’d voted against raising the debt limit, glossing over the fact that he did indeed side with Democrats’ vote to cut off another Cruz filibuster.

“After five years of out-of-control White House spending, including a jobless, trillion-dollar stimulus, now is hardly the time to give the President carte blanche to continue his spending spree,” the Texas senator and Minority Whip said in a statement. “I voted against raising the debt ceiling because we need sensible reforms to cut down on spending and restrain Washington going forward.”

NOW With Alex Wagner, 2/13/14, 5:32 PM ET

Can a dysfunctional Congress ever be fixed?

E.J. Dionne and John Stanton join to discuss the Senate’s debt ceiling vote, and the dysfunction that continues to plague Congress.

Debt Ceiling, John Cornyn, Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz

Republicans in the fire over debt votes

Updated