It was one day, but two faces for Senate Republicans.
The juxtaposition of libertarian champion and Tea Party favorite Sen. Rand Paul's spoken filibuster Wednesday in protest of Obama administration drone policy, with a fancy dinner meeting between the president and old school Republican Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and others serves as a living example of the split the GOP is currently coping with.
After months—or even years—of bipartisan grousing that President Barack Obama hasn't worked hard enough to reach out to lawmakers, the president met with a dozen Republican senators to discuss solutions to the country's fiscal problems, including alternative debt reduction proposals. The move was praised by those invited, with Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska saying afterward is was "a good first step."
Graham, a sometimes-moderate who is up for re-election in 2014 and has long been wary of a potential conservative primary opponent, girded himself against criticism for meeting with the president by sending out a series of Tweets.
"Last night's dinner with President Obama and my Republican colleagues was productive and substantive," he wrote. "Hope it serves as the beginning of a new paradigm where people in elected office actually talk to each other about meaningful issues. I shared with my colleagues there is no dishonor in trying and failing to solve big problems."
But conservative pundits were quick to point out the differences between Paul's protestations against expanded federal power and the swanky, clubby approach taken by the Republican old guard.
"Rand Paul has done a brilliant thing filibustering the President's appointment to the CIA; by keeping the filibuster going through prime time, Rand Paul forced ABC, CBS, and NBC—chief sources of news for low information voters—to cover the issue," wrote Erick Erickson, editor of RedState.com, on his conservative blog. "Even Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon joined in the filibuster. Meanwhile, Lindsey Graham and John McCain went to eat dinner with the President. That speaks for itself."
Erickson also heaped praise on other top Tea Party-backed senators, Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas, for joining Paul's efforts.
Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, sent an E-mail to supporters calling Paul's filibuster "inspiring, encouraging and reassuring."
"We are finally seeing senators and representatives who were elected as a result of the Tea Party movement beginning to establish their footing, use their voices effectively, and make a difference by pushing Congress to again function the way it should," she wrote. "Sen. Paul's physical effort alone was so inspiring that many of us across the country could barely sleep last night. This is the spirit of America we long to see in our elected officials."
Tension has continued to bubble up between insurgent Republicans like Paul, who defeated the establishment-backed Republican during his Kentucky Senate primary, and longtime serving Republicans on how best to approach policy and politicking with Democrats. The more veteran GOP-ers seem primed to cut deals with Obama in order to offer up legislative victories ahead of 2014, whereas Paul and Cruz appear to prefer sticking to principle, even if it means failing to accomplish tangible legislation. The split could grow more and more contentious and apparent as Congress takes action on controversial issues such as gun and immigration reform and attempts to pass a federal budget.
Republicans in Congress, though they retained their House majority in 2012, are reeling from presidential and Senate defeats and continue to be dogged by an unpopular national image. According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 71 percent of voters disapprove of Republicans in Congress compared with just 20 percent who approve. Democrats do slightly better, with a 60 percent disapproval rating versus a 32 percent approval rating.