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The tea party didn't like Sen. John McCain to begin with. But when the Arizona Republican took to the Senate floor to admonish activists for unrealistic expectations and quote from a Wall Street Journal piece that compared some conservatives to "hobbits," the fight got ugly.
The McCain remarks added fuel to the fire in Washington, D.C., this week as conservatives feuded with GOP leadership in the House and tempers boiled over during the debt ceiling fight.
Activists, a failed 2010 Republican Senate nominee and a fellow Senator bristled and publicly struck back against McCain, though most of his colleagues played off the dustup as the Senator resurrecting a maverick personality that so often saw him willing to criticize his fellow Republicans earlier in his career.
It started Wednesday, when McCain passionately defended Speaker John Boehner's (Ohio) debt ceiling legislation, sharply criticizing the bill's GOP opponents for insisting that more conservative proposals could garner the support necessary to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate. He said such claims are patently false and are contributing to a political stalemate that could result in the U.S. defaulting. Many staunch conservatives have vowed to support only the Cut, Cap and Balance Act, which passed the House but died in the Senate.
McCain also attacked immovable conservatives — including some Senate Republicans — for suggesting that a default would have no adverse consequences, saying such talk beckoned economic calamity. The 2008 presidential nominee singled out failed GOP Senate candidates Sharron Angle (Nev.) and Christine O'Donnell (Del.) in his remarks.
Angle, a tea party favorite who lost to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last November despite the Nevada Democrat's high disapproval ratings, charged McCain with hypocrisy for campaigning for conservatives' support during his own 2010 Republican primary only to criticize the movement with his fifth term secured.
"This man campaigned for TEA Party support in his last re-election," Angle said Thursday in a statement. "It is regrettable that a man seeking dialogue, action and cooperation for votes on the floor of the United States Senate has only one strategy to achieve that effort: name-calling. Nice." She added that "as in the fable, it is the hobbits who are the heroes and save the land." Angle said McCain "brings no new ideas to the Senate floor."
"In fact, so unoriginal is Senator McCain's effort that he is reduced to borrowing words from an editorial — rather than bringing anything constructive to this debate," Angle said, remarks that were cheered on by tea party activists on Twitter and supported by O'Donnell.
On her Facebook page, O'Donnell said McCain was "attacking his own party and the very grassroots folks who can help drive a real solution."
Commenters on her page were slanted against McCain, calling him a "RINO."
McCain was unavailable for comment, but his spokesman, Brian Rogers, said the Senator did not set out to target the tea party. Rogers said his boss's speech was to target Members who have, in McCain's view, unrealistically and unfairly argued that Boehner's debt ceiling legislation should be defeated because victory on the Cut, Cap and Balance Act, which includes a proposal for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, was possible. Constitutional amendments require 67 votes to clear the Senate; the support of 20 Democrats would be needed if all 47 Republicans were onboard.
Rogers noted that McCain delivered a similar floor address in early July. The recent speech perhaps received more attention because of McCain's decision to quote from a Wall Street Journal editorial that compared tea party lawmakers to hobbits from J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" and asserted that similar inflexible thinking led in 2010 to the nomination of Angle and O'Donnell, possibly costing the Republicans a chance at flipping the chamber.
"He is frustrated that we can't seem to find an agreement here," Rogers said. "We have a responsibility to be honest with the American people. The Senate is not going to pass a balanced budget amendment; it's not going to happen."
Others noted that McCain was advocating for Boehner's no-tax-increases debt plan and that the Senator himself has refused to bend on this issue or support President Barack Obama's call for a "balanced approach" throughout this debate.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a member of the Senate's Tea Party Caucus, tweeted after McCain's speech: "To those referring to 'Tea Party hobbits.' I'd rather be a hobbit than a troll."
Otherwise, the reaction among Senate Republicans was muted — even among tea party conservatives. Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) laughed off McCain's speech, saying: "That's just John. That's the way he is." Sen. Mike Lee, co-chairman of the Tea Party Caucus, said there are no hard feelings.
"One thing I've always respected about John McCain is that, even when I disagree with him, I've respected his willingness to stand his ground and to voice disagreement," the Utah Republican said. "I've always appreciated and respected his willingness to stand up for what he believes in, even when that involves disagreeing with his colleagues, even within his own party."
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said his colleague shares the views of the Republican Conference and was defending Boehner's debt plan as the best possible outcome for Republicans and the country, on the grounds that the borrowing limit must be raised by Aug. 2 to avoid negative economic fallout.