Like the characters in the movie of the same name, the members of the Senate’s newly formed Breakfast Club don’t actually gather for a meal.
“No breakfast — we’re fiscal conservatives,” Mike Braun, an Indiana Republican, quipped recently of the early-morning gatherings.
On Tuesdays, this band of seven Republican senators, which includes some of the chamber’s leading obstructionists, meets to plot ways to extract austere spending concessions from Democrats in exchange for their help in averting a catastrophic US payments default.
Almost all of the Breakfast Club’s members, including Rick Scott of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah, late last year led an unsuccessful revolt against reelecting GOP leader Mitch McConnell. Like the House’s far-right Freedom Caucus that almost blocked Kevin McCarthy from the speakership, they are a reminder that the party’s populist members aren’t afraid of a high-stakes rebellion.
“There is always a need for leadership,” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, another member of the group, said of the weekly meetings. “In many ways, this is an outgrowth of the leadership battle we had last year.”
The group’s formation marks the first time Senate conservatives have united into a faction since a long-defunct Senate Tea Party Caucus started a dozen years ago.
Cruz and Lee have a history of collaborating with the House’s most intransigent — and better organized — conservatives on matters like defunding Obamacare.
A decade ago, Cruz huddled secretly with House conservatives in the basement of Tortilla Coast, a now-closed restaurant just steps from the Cannon House Office Building. The government was in the middle of a 16-day shutdown Cruz helped orchestrate.
Congress then, as it is now, was focused on the debt ceiling and federal spending. The country ultimately avoided a payments default.
Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin on Wednesday said they’re looking to work with conservatives in the House — where the GOP holds a narrow majority — to lead the effort. “And we’re going to hopefully influence what they’re asking for,” Johnson said.
Cruz assured reporters the nation wouldn’t default. But he and his clubmates made clear they’d drive a hard bargain once again.
The group formed immediately after Scott, who led the party’s campaign apparatus in the midterm elections, challenged McConnell for the minority leader job. Scott got just 10 votes, but the rebellion invigorated a push for more conservative policies.
And with the legislative filibuster still in place and individual senators still able to have some control over the Senate schedule, they have some leverage. It also takes just five senators to call for a GOP conference meeting, a rule they plan to avail themselves of as the nation gets closer to breaching the debt limit.
“I think we’ve got to have a legitimate conversation about how do we balance the budget,” Scott said. “If we don’t balance the budget we’ll never get interest rates down, we’ll never get inflation down.”
The emergence of the group, which also includes Rand Paul of Kentucky and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, comes as President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats are doubling down on their call for a “clean” debt ceiling. Biden has said it would be a financial “calamity” if the US defaults on its obligations.
McConnell has said spending reductions often are negotiated with debt limit increases, but aggressive moves by some conservative House Republicans to force deep reductions have prompted concerns of a repeat of 2011, when a simmering feud over roiled financial markets and damaged an economic recovery.
After this week’s Tuesday morning meeting, participants said their strategy for the time being is to get behind spending-cut ideas framed by McCarthy and House conservatives. They’ll decide later whether to put forth one of their own.
“We’re going to observe and see what comes out of the House, and if it all looks like it’s dove-tailing, I think that’s going to be bad for the status quo,” Braun said.
The senators said little about what they want to see, but most say both domestic and defense discretionary spending should be the chief focus, and perhaps entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. But they say they don’t want outright cuts to current benefits, something that former President Donald Trump has warned Republicans not to pursue.
The group includes senators known for digging in their heels, regardless of the consequences.
Paul shut down much of the government for six hours in 2018 by refusing to give his consent for a vote before a midnight deadline. Cruz and Lee were the architects of the 16-day partial government shutdown in 2013 that was estimated by Standard and Poor’s to cost the economy $24 billion.
Yet they don’t always take the hard line.
The group tried, without success, to prevent a major government spending bill from passing before the end of last year.
Lee and other Senate conservatives ultimately consented to expediting the final vote, averting a shutdown, after they were given floor time for budget-cutting amendments, all of which failed.