Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) escalated his conflict with fellow Republicans Tuesday when he stepped up his attacks on President Obama’s health-care law, complicating House GOP efforts to pass a funding bill that would avert a government shutdown next week.
Launching a marathon speech modeled on old-fashioned filibusters, Cruz also informed his Senate GOP colleagues that he would try to stretch the debate well into the weekend, according to senators who attended private huddles Tuesday. With Senate passage all but certain, including funds for the health law, senior Republicans had hoped to allow the measure to advance quickly to give House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) more time to respond with a different version of the legislation.
Instead, the freshman senator took the floor Tuesday afternoon promising to speak “until I am no longer able to stand.” His effort to block the legislation had almost no chance of success, as the series of votes advancing it are locked in and most of his fellow Republicans have abandoned him in the effort.
The Cruz talkathon was the latest example of the increasingly stark division among Republicans, both on Capitol Hill and nationally. The Texas newcomer, just 42 and nine months into office, is carrying the banner for conservatives urging a take-no-prisoners approach in confronting the president, even if it means shuttering the government.
“A great many Texans, a great many Americans feel they do not have a voice, and so I hope to play some very small role in providing the voice,” Cruz declared.
But the move angered senior Republicans, who complained that Cruz and the junior senators pushing this strategy did not understand the wounds the GOP suffered during the mid-1990s shutdown battles with President Bill Clinton. Back then, the party controlled both the House and Senate, a luxury when compared to its tenuous majority in the House today.
“I just don’t believe anybody benefits from shutting the government down, and certainly Republicans don’t. We learned that in 1995,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), the dean of the GOP caucus. “We’re in the minority. We have to find a way of standing up for our principles without immolating ourselves in front of everybody, in a way when we don’t have the votes to do it.”
Some suggested that this was the latest example of a party adrift, both on policy and strategic thinking. “We haven’t had much of a strategy on anything to this point. Everybody’s shooting from the hip,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).
Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) originally preferred a different approach that would have required Democrats to vote for the health-care funds, while GOP senators could have symbolically opposed.
Cruz played a leading role, along with outside conservative groups, in pushing House Republicans to take a harder line. House Republicans relented and on Friday passed a bill exactly as Cruz wanted.
“We don’t need fake fights. We don’t need fake votes. We need real change. We need a better economy. We need more jobs,” Cruz said early Tuesday afternoon, rejecting the original Boehner-McConnell plan.
Throughout the afternoon and evening, a half-dozen colleagues joined Cruz on the floor, among them Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), two 2016 presidential aspirants. Cruz could yield to colleagues for long-form questions but could not leave the floor or sit.
In the opening hours, Cruz discussed an unusual mix of subjects, ranging from opposition to the health-care law; the unemployment rate among African American teenagers; how his father, Rafael Cruz, used to make green eggs and ham for breakfast; a recent acceptance speech by actor Ashton Kutcher at an awards show; and the restaurants Denny’s, Benihana and White Castle.
Later in the evening, Cruz read Twitter messages he was receiving from supporters and “bedtime stories” to his two young daughters, who he said were in Texas watching with his wife. He quoted from “King Solomon’s Wise Words” from the Book of Proverbs and read the Dr. Seuss classic, “Green Eggs and Ham,” noting that it was one of his favorite children’s books.
When he yielded briefly to take questions, the other senators would give extended remarks on their opposition to the health-care law and then ask Cruz questions that set up the Texas senator to continue his remarks.
By holding the floor, Cruz and his allies launched what looked to most Americans like a traditional filibuster, fixed in the popular imagination by Jimmy Stewart’s performance in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
But even if Cruz were physically capable of speaking for more than 24 hours — the longest filibuster in U.S. history is 24 hours, 18 minutes by Sen. Strom Thurmond (S.C.) and other Southern senators opposed to civil rights laws — there are parliamentary procedures in place dictating that Cruz will have to yield the floor by Wednesday afternoon at the latest.
At that point, the Senate is scheduled to hold a key procedural test vote that is near certain to pass with bipartisan support. McConnell had hoped that he could get Cruz and his band of allies to relent so that the Senate could pass something by Friday. He even convened an extra meeting, in addition to the weekly Tuesday policy luncheon, at which several senators said Cruz was encouraged to drop some of his delaying tactics or Boehner would not get the legislation until late Sunday or early Monday.
Cruz told the group that he would use every tool possible to drag out the vote.
“My own view is that it would be to the advantage of our colleagues in the House, who are in the majority, to shorten the process, and if the majority leader were to ask us to shorten the process, I would not object,” McConnell told reporters after the two meetings.
“If the House doesn’t get what we send over there until Monday, they’re in a pretty tough spot,” McConnell said later. “My own view is the House, having passed a bill that I really like and that I support . . . I hate to put them in a tough spot.”
If Cruz holds firm, Boehner will have just hours to decide his next move. He might try to quickly pass a new version of the funding legislation, with some conservative sweeteners, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) warned that such a move done just hours before Monday’s stroke-of-midnight deadline would guarantee a federal government shutdown. There would simply not be enough time to get through the Senate’s messy parliamentary hurdles to avoid at least a temporary shutdown.
Cruz, who began speaking at 2:41 p.m., was quickly joined by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who was the original architect of the strategy to defund Obama’s health-care law or shut down the government. Their filibuster is the culmination of a strategy they began developing in the summer when Lee, first elected in 2010, started looking for allies to defund the law by using annual spending bills for federal agencies as potential leverage.
Lee and Cruz launched a commercial campaign that targeted fellow Republicans with ads designed to pressure GOP senators to support the pair’s shutdown strategy. Senior colleagues have rejected the approach, and instead have grown more angry.