The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Peter King and the ’40 Ted Cruz Republicans’

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For a fleeting moment Monday evening, it seemed that Rep. Peter King, the gruff, tough-talking, blue-collar Long Islander was poised to emerge as the GOP’s anti-Cruz, a moderate who would lead a rebellion against the House GOP effort to tie defunding Obamacare to funding the government.

It was, as mentioned, a fleeting moment.

“I was the only one who spoke strongly in opposition. Silence,” King said in an interview a few minutes before it became clear that his rebellion would fail and the government would shut down. He said that he told his colleagues in a private caucus meeting that they were “living in their own echo chamber, hearing themselves and talking to each other.” Barely any of them heard him.

“Today was the only opportunity we had to break the logjam, putting it out there that we were going to start this revolt if you will, trying to line up votes,” King said. He said he had overheard Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on the House floor lobbying his conference and "asking people on a personal basis to stick with him." King said that he personally listened to Boehner tell him "'I understand your frustration, I know this is tough for everyone, but if you guys will stick with me it will work out OK, I’ve got a plan.'" King added that he believed Boehner was being sincere. "I don’t see any deception here, I just don’t think it’s going to happen."

As of midnight, it didn’t.

“By all accounts,” King added. "You have 40 Ted Cruz Republicans in the House running national policy."

King has over the years become increasingly comfortable in his role as the moderate thorn in his party’s right side. He once said Newt Gingrich, who last shut down the government, was turning the GOP into “hillbillies at revival meetings.” This year he went ballistic when his party voted to cut funding for relief to damage caused by Hurricane Sandy and said he didn’t feel “comfortable” in a caucus he described as populated by anti-urban bigots and untrustworthy leaders. But it is in Cruz, the smooth talking, Ivy League trained Texas senator, that King, whose office is decorated with cop, firefighter and fighting Irish paraphernalia, has found his ultimate foil and the personification of everything that he thinks went wrong with his party.

He said the current strand in his party didn’t have a prayer of winning the presidency back in 2016 – “Not if it’s the party of Ted Cruz . I think a Republican can get elected if he is conservative and independent at the same time. Not if he follows this blind ideology. It’s not even an ideology,” he added. “It’s not even conservative. Defunding the law? If Tip O’Neill said in the 1980s we are going to shut the government down unless Reagan stopped Star Wars or repealed his tax cuts, we would have said ‘It’s left wing Bolshevism.' So I don’t see it as a conservative policy as much as a guerrilla tactic.”

King, who has an affinity for the media and not unrelated tendency to declare presidential ambitions, represents an increasingly Democratic Long Island district, has voted for gun control measures, defended Charlie Rangel and is a strong supporter of unions. He became simpatico with the Clintons for his help during the Northern Ireland peace accords. But his trademark issues have been those of national security, on which he has been unwaveringly hawkish. A supporter of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, he earned the ire of liberals for investigations into Islamic extremism as the chair of the Homeland Security Committee. But such complexity,  he seemed to think, is a thing of the past in the GOP.

Asked what happened to his party, King said “Wow. I don’t know. The Ted Cruz element.” He paused. “I don’t want to personalize it, because it’s not like he’s so charismatic.”