Vice President Joe Biden shed some light on the political realities of the Senate Tuesday, speaking in Boston at a special election campaign fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, a Democrat, who is taking on Republican Gabriel Gomez in the Senate race to fill John Kerry's old seat.
Biden, who served in the body for 36 years and with many who are still in office, said the distance between Democrats and Republicans has never been so great.
"There's never been as much distance, at least since I've been alive, distance between where the mainstream of the Republican congressional party is and the Democratic Party is," Biden said, according to a pool report of his remarks. "It's a chasm; it's a gigantic chasm."
Biden spoke specifically about his efforts to lobby senators to support a gun measure that would require universal background checks, something polls show nearly nine in 10 Americans support.
"I called 17 senators out, 9 of whom were Republicans," he said. "Not one offered an explanation on the merits of why they couldn't vote for the background check. But almost to a person, they said, 'I don't want to take on Ted Cruz. I don't want to take on Rand Paul. They'll be in my district.'"
Cruz, a tea party favorite from Texas, and Paul, a Kentucky libertarian hero in the mold of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, have established themselves as willing to buck conformity and be openly critical of their GOP colleagues on issues from gun reforms to the budget.
"Think about this: Have you ever seen a time when two freshman senators are able to cower the bulk of the Republican Party in the Senate? That is not hyperbole," Biden said. "I actually said, 'Are you kidding? These are two freshmen.' This is a different party, folks. They're not bad guys, and they're both very bright guys. And I'm not questioning their motive."
Biden's comments reinforce the split emerging among Senate Republicans, particularly between old school Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and the new wave, consisting of Cruz, Paul and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.
"They were elected, nobody believes that there was a corrupt election, anything else," McCain said in a March interview with the Huffington Post. "But I also think that when, you know, it's always the wacko birds on right and left that get the media megaphone."
McCain specified he was referring to Paul and Cruz in the Senate.
Cruz and Paul also clashed with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, during a regular policy lunch in April, after she faced negative ads from a pro-gun group linked to Paul, according to a New York Times report. Cruz seemed to reference the argument and called some of his colleagues "squishes" in speaking before a tea party group a few weeks later in Texas.
"We've had probably five or six lunches with a bunch of Republican senators standing up and looking at Rand and Mike and me and yelling at the top of their lungs, I mean really upset," Cruz said. "And they said, 'Why did you do this? As a result of what you did, when I go home, my constituents are yelling at me that I've got to stand on principle.' I'm not making that up."
With looming issues like immigration reform, military sexual assault and the budget, Republicans are showing genuine splits in the party line for the first time since before the 2012 election. The internal politics also reflects a larger struggle, as the GOP tries to navigate maintaining grassroots enthusiasm with broadening its appeal, particularly to minority and women voters.