This is how strange contemporary Washington has become: In the Senate — the less combative branch of congressional Republicanism — John McCain, the self-proclaimed maverick who once nearly was invited to join a Democratic national ticket, and Susan Collins, the Maine moderate who often sides with Democrats — are regarded, and sometimes disparaged, as the Republican Old Guard.
Of course, this does not mean that the GOP has drifted leftward. On the contrary. It means that all the assumptions once brought to bear on congressional Republicans are out of date. Dead. Relegated to the deep, dark past.
This spring these two occasional renegades found themselves in the role of Old Guardians by virtue of their longevity (McCain has been on Capitol Hill for 30 years, Collins nearly as long, if her years as a congressional aide are counted), and guardians of party tradition by virtue of their temperament (which is to say accommodating, though they delight in being unpredictable in whom they might accommodate).
But these days, an accommodating temperament and longevity are passe, so these two onetime rebels found themselves at the ramparts over discussions about (and this is the remarkable thing) whether discussions should even be held over debt limit and budget issues. It is probably not necessary to add that yet another budget crisis looms.
For 10 weeks — about the length of an American general election campaign — Senate budget talks with the House have been stalled. Actually, they haven’t really begun, and as a result the vital appropriations process is in peril — a potent symbol of government dysfunction. At war are two absolutes: the absolute necessity to address budget questions and the absolute refusal to engage those questions without preconditions.
Before you leap to the conclusion that Republicans are being intransigent, remember that many of the tea partiers are tired of being rolled in negotiations, tired of watching tax increases creep into law, tired of watching ineffectually as big government stays big or gets bigger.