WASHINGTON - No one could have been more pleased to see the arrival of Congress's five-week summer recess than House Speaker John Boehner. It offers a welcome breathing space in the seemingly endless civil war between his Republican caucus's far-right conservatives and its moderate establishment members.
A prior Republican Senate majority leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, wrote a book about his torment in that leadership post titled "Herding Cats," which pretty much summed up Boehner's dilemma in the House. Only this time he has the further headache of an intruder from the Senate bent on horning in on his already complicated task.
That would be freshman Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who continued his foraying across Capitol Hill helping gum up the works in Boehner's efforts to squeeze some immigration border relief from his divided and warring party legislators.
Cruz on Thursday once again held a rump meeting of like-minded House conservatives in his Senate office. There he successfully encouraged them to revolt against a stripped-down Boehner proposal to provide $659 billion to fund more border security, rather than the $3.7 billion President Obama sought.
House Minority Whip Chris Van Hollen of Maryland was quick to lay the blame at the feet of "Speaker Cruz," accusing the Texan on MSNBC of "calling the shots" from his Senate enclave. Cruz indignantly responded: "The suggestion by some that House members are unable to stand up and fight for their conservative principles is offensive and belittling to the House conservatives."
Cruz's brazenness in thumbing his nose at the traditional protocol observed by both House and Senate, respecting the independence of "the other body" in the legislative branch, is already well recognized. That he came to Washington determined to march to his own drummer was apparent during his campaign for the Senate, and he has not disappointed.
At a time the old comity between House and Senate, and between the two major parties in them, has all but vanished, the Cruz one-man wrecking ball is particularly unfortunate, especially for Boehner. The speaker finds himself a target not only of both factions in his caucus but also of a White House that sees him unable forge any meaningful compromise on anything.
Ted Cruz, to be sure, is not the first bull in a china shop that Congress has had to deal with in its long existence. In a body that was once regarded a (mostly) gentlemen's club, where voices were seldom raised in anger, the axiom of going along to get along was regularly honored. Both bodies have rules of conduct encouraging civility, though they are often winked at.
One is that no member is to use disparaging or demeaning discourse toward a colleague in debate - thus the references to "the distinguished gentleman from Texas" and the like. But ways are sometimes found to get around it. My favorite is the time long ago when Democratic Sen. Robert Kerr of Oklahoma referred to rotund Republican Sen. Homer Capehart of Indiana as a "rancid tub of ignorance in whom I hold minimum high regard."
Very rarely, a senator has been censured by his colleagues, but more for behavior than for mere language. The previously most renowned Capitol Hill renegade was Republican Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin. In 1950, he was subjected to a "Declaration of Conscience" from Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and six fellow Republicans. They charged him with debasing the Senate "to the level of a forum for hate and character assassination" in his free-wheeling attacks on witnesses in his anti-communist witch hunt.
As he continued, four years later the Senate finally censured him for conduct "contrary to senatorial traditions," itself a mildly worded rebuke for the havoc he had brought to the supposedly august chamber.
Ted Cruz, of course, has not in any way approached the outrages of Joe McCarthy. But he has become more than enough of a headache to John Boehner, whose woes in the House have already been more than he has been able to handle.