How Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn busted Ted Cruz’s Obamacare bubble

September 24, 2013

The lonely road Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is walking down just got even lonelier.

The top two Republicans in the Senate made clear Monday they will not join Cruz's call for a filibuster of a government funding bill that cleared the House last week. Their decisions signaled that the fiery freshman's plan isn't good politics even for Republicans facing conservative primary threats and reinforced a widely held view that it won't work in practice.


Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), center, flanked by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), left, and Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, gestures during a March 12 news conference in Washington. (Susan Walsh/AP)

"Senator McConnell supports the House Republicans’ bill and will not vote to block it, since it defunds Obamacare and funds the government without increasing spending by a penny," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

With that, Stewart ended the possibility McConnell might join Cruz's corner, which is sparsely populated in the upper chamber in this fight.

While the House last week gave Cruz and his cohort exactly what they wanted -- a bill that keeps the government running but cuts off funding for Obamacare -- he's called on his colleagues to block it from advancing in the Senate. Why? To prevent Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) from stripping out the provision that defunds the health-care law and passing a new version restoring funding with a simple majority vote.

McConnell and Cornyn support defunding Obamacare, which they are demonstrating by not blocking the bill that cleared the House. But they are not supporting Cruz's push to prevent Reid from remaking the measure, which he will do if Cruz can't round up 40 additional votes to block him.

It was a virtual lock going into Monday that Cruz's plan wouldn't end up winning much support. What was unclear was whether he would coax any Republicans of note to join him.

The fact that McConnell will not speaks volumes. The Kentucky Republican has drawn a primary challenger who is running to his right in a conservative state. Moreover, McConnell has been very careful not to do anything to irk a conservative base already skeptical of him. His decision not to join Cruz suggests he (1) Doesn't think his idea will lead anywhere and (2) Doesn't think it's good politics, either.

Neither apparently does Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who's also not going to filibuster. "Senator Cornyn will support the House bill that defunds Obamacare. He will not block a bill that defunds Obamacare," said Cornyn spokeswoman Megan Mitchell.

Cornyn doesn't face a serious primary challenger, but is taking the potential threat of one very seriously.

In his first nine months in the Senate, Cruz has quickly become a leading figure in the conservative movement. He's a hero in the eyes of many voters Cornyn and McConnell simply cannot afford to alienate. That's made it risky for them to split with the freshman on major issues. Until now, they largely haven't in major policy debates.

But the fact that they are breaking with him now supports the argument that Cruz has overreached on an issue (Obamacare) that Republicans felt good about homing in on heading toward the midterm elections. And it clears the way for other Republican senators to follow their lead.

In the end, this entire episode may not hurt Cruz's standing among his enthusiastic base of unwavering conservatives across the country. It might even make him a bigger star in their eyes.

But inside Washington, it's a different story. He's already enraged House Republicans by seeking to shift the burden of responsibility to them in the effort to defund Obamacare. And now, he's failed to win over two senators badly in need of conservative cred wherever they can get it.

Has the Obamacare fight helped Cruz? Depends on where. Inside the halls of Congress, the answer looks like a pretty definitive no at this point.

Fixbits:

A new Washington Post-Abt SRBI poll shows former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe leading Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) 47 percent to 39 percent in the Virginia governor's race. And McAuliffe leads 43 percent to 38 percent in a new NBC4/NBC News/Marist poll. Women voters have boosted McAuliffe into the lead.

Lois Lerner resigned from the IRS.

A former FBI bomb technician has agreed to plead guilty in a case involving a leak to the Associated Press.

It's Election Day in Boston and Alabama's 1st district!

President Obama said he quit smoking six years ago "because I'm afraid of my wife."

"We're not nearly as political as everyone thinks we are," Bill Clinton said of himself and his wife, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

George W. Bush says Obama shouldn't be criticized for playing golf.

North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R) will not run for the Senate.

The RNC outraised the DNC by $1.5 million in August.

Must-reads: 

"E.W. Jackson faces key test in debate with Democratic opponent for lieutenant governor" -- Michael Laris, Washington Post

"McConnell’s Deal-Making Yields to Politicking" -- Jonathan Weisman and Jeremy W. Peters, New York Times

"At U.N., Obama to focus on his most vexing foreign-policy challenges" -- Scott Wilson and Anne Gearan, Washington Post

Sean Sullivan covers national politics for “The Fix.”
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Chris Cillizza | September 23, 2013