Ted Cruz peered meaningfully down at the front row audience of five teenaged ushers seated on the carpeted floor of the Senate. Obamacare, he said, would damage a “lost generation” of “young people coming out of school.”
“Mr. President!” the Texas Republican thundered, now raising his eyes to West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, who presided over the session and perused some papers on a desk above the ushers. “Where is the outrage? Where are the senators?”
In fact, Cruz spent the better part of Tuesday afternoon and night alone in the Senate chamber bashing Obamacare in the hopes of, well, something. (“I call it a phonybuster,” New York senator Chuck Schumer said. “Because we’ll vote at noon whether he speaks or not.”)
Cruz, looking Shul-bound in dark suit, teal tie and black sneakers, stood next to his Tea Party sidekick Mike Lee of Utah. He folded his hands on a mini-lectern propped on his desk and periodically checked a black-banded watch he had put down beside his pens. “Most Americans don’t give a flying flip,” about senators, he said at one point. “Anyone who is trying to make this about personalities is trying to change the topic,” he said at another.
He yielded for a question from Lee. It was a long question that included such catchy phrases as “just as the complexity of the law has not become less problematic” and concluded with the query “do you feel like the American public have any right to speak out on this?”
At 4:01 pm, more than an hour into his stand-with-Ted talk, Cruz got some relief from David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican who wore a cornflower blue pocket handkerchief that matched his shirt. As Manchin surreptitiously texted under the desk, Vitter asked Cruz to yield the floor.
“I will yield for a question without yielding the floor,” Cruz said. He said this a lot.
Vitter asked a friendly question and Cruz responded warmly, pointing out to his colleague, who survived a politically damaging prostitution scandal, that Obamacare included “scandalous” aspects, “late night deals” and a “Louisiana Purchase,” which, he added, he meant as no disrespect to his colleague from Louisiana,“who is not at all connected” to said Louisiana Purchase.
People entered and exited the peanut gallery. Reporters mostly watched on televisions inside the Senate press gallery, though a few wandered out onto the balcony overlooking the chamber to get a look at Cruz’s shoes. Senate doormen manning the viewing gallery doors poked fun at one woman who had to be back at 7:30 the next morning. Paul Broun, a Georgia Republican congressman running for Senate, crossed the marble rotunda and approached the august entrance to ask the doorkeeper, “Is there a particular door I go through to get on the floor?”
“Are you a standing member?” she asked. “Yes, I’m a standing member,” he said and entered.
Upstairs in the press gallery, Broun’s entrance caused some confusion. “Do you know who that member is?” one gallery official asked. “He must be a Tea Party-er,” said another.
Broun, who has white hair and a red face, stood directly behind Cruz as he faced the teenage ushers, Manchin and, most importantly, the cameras. A floor official whispered to him, he nodded and took a seat, far out of shot, by one of the swinging doors. As Broun uncrossed his legs to make room for exiting staffers, Cruz began to talk about how his father “invented green eggs and ham.” He said that as a teacher his father had “all sorts of clever final exam questions,” including one that required students to calculate the area of a certain triangle. “Nine and eleven add up to 20 and that’s a straight line and the area is zero,” he said.
It was only 4:43.
A frisson of excitement seemed to run through the ushers, wearing their old-world-waiter black uniforms, when, minutes later, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid walked in, and offered Cruz an uncharitable look over his right shoulder. Cruz seemed unbothered and said “some time ago I tweeted a speech that Ashton Kutcher gave” and declared himself “a big fan of eating White Castle burgers.”
Reid, like many other senators, was headed to a farewell reception for Michael Oren, the outgoing Israeli ambassador to the United States. As Oren followed Reid out of the ceremony (“Senator Reid! I just wanted to say hi!”) Congressman Broun exited the chamber. “I knew he was on the floor and I wanted to stand with him,” he said, explaining that he left a Senate campaign fund-raiser to register his presence. “I will be back probably at 9:30 or 10.”
GOP Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Susan Collins (Maine) stopped by the Oren party for strawberries and cheese. So did New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez and Manchin, who said that he had “very much” enjoyed presiding over the beginning of Cruz’s long performance, though he didn’t oppose being relieved by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. (“Oh, no,” he said. “I’m not upset.”) As California Sen. Barbara Boxer exited the Oren event directly across the hall from the Senate chamber, she made clear that she had prepared a bad review of Cruz’s extended speaking engagement, which ultimately included a bedtime reading of Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs and Ham" to his “little precious angels,” watching at home.
“What is his quote? ‘I’m going to talk to I drop?’ What is it, do you have it?” She turned to an aide. “Could you get it? He said he’s going to talk till he drops, till he keels over. I want to get it because I have a very good line that I just made up and I want to give it to you because I haven’t said it publicly. I’ll say it tomorrow on the floor or Thursday on the floor. I can’t believe you don’t have it.”
She turned to the aide typing into her smartphone. “Just say ‘Cruz,’ ‘Drop,’” she instructed. “Vowed to talk until he drops,” the aide read. “There you go.”
“Ok,” Boxer said, now ready to unveil her zinger. “So Senator Cruz says he is going to talk till he drops to stop the Affordable Care Act. Well he can afford to talk till he drops because he’s got health insurance. And millions of people don’t and he’s stopping them, so if they drop their apt to die.”
A few minutes later, just after 6 pm, the teenage ushers who had watched the first act of Cruz’s one man show, looked a little weary as they jammed into one elevator and headed home.
“We are packing this puppy up,” one of them shouted.