The Education of Ted Cruz

September 23, 2013

Ted Cruz began a frantic effort Monday to bend the Senate to his will by employing tactics that have earned him mostly enemies in his less than nine months in the chamber.

A master of fiery conservative oratory, the freshman senator is trying to block funding for President Obama’s health-care law with a strategy that, if successful, will almost certainly lead to a partial government shutdown next week. The Texan has become the face of an effort variously described as the “dumbest idea,” leading Republicans to a “box canyon” and ending with their political “suicide note.”

( Watch live video: Sen. Cruz argues against Obamacare on Senate floor. )

And those descriptions were from Cruz’s fellow Senate Republicans. On Monday, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Minority Whip John Cornyn (Tex.) joined the list of longtime GOP senators objecting to Cruz’s strategy, which is intended to shut down the government until and unless Democrats agree to abolish funding for Obama’s health-care law.

This has left Cruz in a relatively familiar place, almost alone in advocating a tough strategy that is winning him the adoration of conservative activists but isolation and quiet disdain among his colleagues on Capitol Hill. Cruz, 42, is a sought-after speaker on the fundraising circuit in early voting states for the 2016 presidential primaries.

Congressional reporter Ed O'Keefe outlines the key players in this week's showdown between the House and Senate over the continuing resolution to fund the government. (The Washington Post)

Cruz said he owes nothing to party leaders such as McConnell.

“Every day in the Senate, I try to remember to whom I am accountable, and it is not elected officials in Washington,” he told The Washington Post in an interview last month. “It is not, with all respect, to the mainstream media. The people to whom I believe I am accountable are the men and women in Texas.”

His burgeoning fame among the grass roots of his party has not translated into anything resembling success inside the tradition-bound and clubby Senate, where even in today’s highly partisan atmosphere lawmakers usually begin their rejoinders by referring to a political enemy as the “distinguished gentleman.”

For all his success as an agitator of outside forces, Cruz has not set about trying to court Senate allies he will need to advance his agenda. During almost every roll call, he can be found in the far right corner of the chamber, with just his close friend and ideological compatriot Mike Lee (R-Utah).

He does not work the room the way most senators do, including Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), two potential 2016 rivals who appear happy to chat up the chamber’s elder statesmen.

GOP leaders didn’t want to have a standoff with the Texan, given his popularity among the base and his engaging personal history.

Cruz gives the GOP another prominent Hispanic voice, along with Rubio, to make an appeal to Latino voters who have been largely estranged from the party. His 2012 victory — first overcoming the Texas establishment’s choice in the GOP primary, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and then cruising to a general-election win — coincided with plummeting Latino support for the national Republican ticket.

He arrived in January with an ideological framework, called “opportunity conservatism,” designed to broaden the GOP’s appeal to working-class minority voters “with a single-minded focus on easing the ascent up the economic ladder.”

Even before he was sworn in, Cruz was awarded a spot on the National Republican Senatorial Committee and asked to help recruit candidates while serving as a go-between with conservative groups who had backed anti-establishment candidates in Senate primaries, sometimes to the party’s demise in general elections.

Instead, many GOP senior aides and senators say, Cruz has become an ideological warrior seeking to purify the party, resembling former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and former senator Jim DeMint (S.C.). Rather than taking on Democrats and Obama, his biggest headlines often came after fights with fellow Republicans.

In March, Cruz delivered the keynote speech at a conservative convention in Washington with denunciations of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who called Paul and Cruz “wacko birds” for their filibuster in March of John O. Brennan’s nomination as CIA director.

“Count me a proud wacko bird,” Cruz said, bringing the crowd to its feet.

He has done little for the official campaign party outfit, instead devoting most of his energy to helping two groups linked to DeMint: the Heritage Foundation and the Senate Conservatives Fund.

This latest feud with fellow Republicans began in the summer, when Lee started looking for allies for a strategy to defund the health-care law. His plan was to use the fight over annual spending bills for federal agencies as potential leverage to force Obama and Democrats to dismantle the legislation. Those funding measures will expire Sept. 30, and the next day key portions of the new health-care law will take effect.

Rubio and Paul backed the strategy right away, said a Senate GOP aide familiar with the early deliberations, as did Cruz. But in the past eight weeks, Cruz has been the main face of the effort.

Senior Republicans, led by Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), once considered the most conservative senator, lectured their junior counterparts that they didn’t fully understand the law and the parliamentary hurdles ahead. Most of the new measure, Coburn warned in several speeches, came from a different part of the federal budget and would continue to be implemented even if the federal government was mostly shut down.

In August, Cruz and Lee filmed ads for the Senate Conservatives Fund. The spots ran in states with GOP senators, trying to pressure them to support the plan to shut down the government. Cruz and DeMint traveled nationwide trying to rally conservative activists to pressure Republicans.

It worked in the House, where several dozen members forced Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to retreat from his plan to pass a stopgap government funding bill without strict restrictions on health-care funding. Instead, Boehner allowed the Cruz-backed language to pass last week. Cruz issued a thank-you message but noted that he had little chance of success in the Senate.

That mild retreat sparked outrage among Republicans on both sides of the Capitol. What had been private whispers of complaint boiled over into public view.

“I didn’t go to Harvard or Princeton, but I can count,” Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) wrote via Twitter, a clear slap at Cruz’s status as an alumnus of Princeton and Harvard law.

After Cruz’s appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” host Chris Wallace told viewers that he had “top Republicans” giving him “unsolicited research and questions” with which to “hammer” Cruz.

When the Senate convened Monday afternoon for a brief session, Cruz was the lone Republican trying to thwart Reid’s plans. He initially objected to allowing perfunctory votes on noncontroversial judicial nominees until he was given floor time to speak out against the law.

“We will not bow to tea party anarchists in the House or in the Senate,” Reid countered.

Cruz has shifted tactics, and he is now urging Republicans to filibuster the government funding bill even though it has the anti-Affordable Care Act language that he supports. That’s because Reid can strike the restrictions on the law through a simple majority vote.

The only way to stop the funding, then, is to filibuster a bill that is drafted exactly as Cruz prefers. It’s the sort of parliamentary pretzel logic that has led many Senate Republicans to say this was the wrong fight to pick.

“That should pose an easy choice for every Republican senator,” Cruz told reporters.

It may indeed, and he is likely to lose.

Jackie Kucinich, Ed O’Keefe and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.

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