WASHINGTON -- Two prominent old-line Senate Republicans threw down the gauntlet to their more conversative colleagues on Tuesday, challenging them to stop obstructing the passage of a budget.
Led by tea party Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), Republicans have been preventing the Senate from sending the budget it passed earlier this year to a conference committee with the House, at which major differences between the two chambers' budget bills would in theory be worked out. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been supportive of the blockade.
But on Tuesday, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) blasted the obstruction in a Senate floor showdown with Paul.
McCain went so far as to call his fellow senators' actions "bizarre."
"I would like to point out to my colleagues -- on this side of the aisle -- that for four years, for four years, we complained about the fact that the majority leader ... would refuse to bring a budget to the floor of the United States Senate," McCain said after Paul objected to a request by Democrats to provide for a conference committee.
"We did a budget and all of us patted each other on the back and we were so proud we did the budget. And, by golly, now we'll move with the House of Representatives, and we will have a budget, hopefully at least [we'll] begin negotiations with the House of Representatives, which is a majority of Republicans -- not Democrats, Republicans," McCain said.
The tea party trio, however, want to require that the Senate conferees named to the joint committee be barred from agreeing to any compromise that would raise taxes or hike the nation's debt ceiling.
McCain called that "absolutely unprecedented."
"We instruct the conferees," he said. "We don't require the conferees because that's why we appoint conferees and that's why we approve or disapprove the result of that conference. That's how our laws are made."
Collins chimed in, calling for "a return to regular order in this body. Well, regular order is going to conference." Then she yielded for a pointed question from McCain.
"Isn't it true that the people that the [conference] would be held with on the other side of the Capitol happen to be a majority of our party? So we don't trust the majority party on the other side of the [Capitol] to come to conference and not hold to the fiscal discipline that we want to see happen? Isn't that a little bit bizarre?" McCain asked.
"It certainly is ironic, at the least," Collins said. "It is an opportunity for the Republican House to argue for its budget."
Democrats could try to force the issue with votes to break the filibuster, but because of complicated Senate rules, that would likely require a new round of voting as extensive as that required to pass the budget in the first place. And there's no guarantee that it would succeed. Democrats have adamantly opposed restarting the whole process.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.