Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) ripped into his own party Friday, branding Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a liar as backroom maneuvers aimed at shoring up bipartisan support for a transportation bill erupted into public view. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Firebrand Republican senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz did something surprising in the Senate on Friday: He accused the head of his party, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of lying to his colleagues.

“We know now that when the majority leader looks us in the eyes and makes an explicit commitment, that he is willing to say things that he knows are false,” Cruz (Tex.) said. “That has consequences for how this body operates.”

Cruz’s remarks laid bare, in the most august of settings, simmering tensions between the conservative activist wing of the Republican Party and the mainstream GOP establishment. In his 20-minute speech, Cruz accused McConnell (Ky.) of running the Senate in much the same manner as his Democratic predecessor as majority leader, Harry M. Reid (Nev.).

“There is a profound disappointment among the American people because we keep winning elections, and then we keep getting leaders who don’t do anything they promised,” Cruz said. “We’ve had a Republican majority in both houses of Congress now for about six months. . . . This Senate operates exactly the same, the same priorities.”

On the Senate floor, Cruz accused "career politicians" in Congress of "looting the taxpayer to benefit wealthy, powerful corporations." (AP)

Prompting the outburst was McConnell’s move to prepare amendment votes on a must-pass transportation bill. After senators voted to consider the bill, McConnell set up votes on two controversial issues — a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank of the United States. Not included were such issues as immigration enforcement and cuts to Planned Parenthood funding, for which Cruz and other conservatives had pushed.

The move incensed Cruz, who had announced his intention to offer other amendments and who, like many conservatives, strongly opposes the bank’s reauthorization despite the support it enjoys among a supermajority of senators. That puts him at odds with McConnell, who has attempted to keep major legislation moving steadily through the Senate and has struck deals and engaged in procedural maneuvers to avoid getting bogged down, with uneven success.

Though McConnell has personally spoken against the Export-Import Bank’s reauthorization, Democrats said in June that he had agreed to schedule a vote on the bank in order to get highly divisive trade legislation passed.

Cruz said Friday that McConnell, in a private Republican conference meeting, denied that any deal had been struck to pass the trade bill.

“I asked the majority leader very directly: What was the deal that was just cut?” Cruz recalled. “The majority leader was visibly angry with me that I would ask such a question, and the majority leader looked at me and said, ‘There is no deal, there is no deal, there is no deal.’ Like Saint Peter, he repeated it three times.”

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart declined to comment.

Rule XIX

Senators generally refrain from impugning their colleagues on the floor, a practice codified in Senate Rule XIX: “No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”

The penalty for breaching that rule is to be ordered to take one’s seat — in effect, to sit down and shut up. But no senator rose to make a point of order before Cruz left the floor.

“It’s unusual, certainly,” Betty K. Koed, the Senate’s official historian, said of Cruz’s remarks. “The Senate prides itself on being an environment of polite, respectful decorum, but this happens from time to time.”

In a 1995 speech on Senate decorum, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) denounced senators who accuse their colleagues of dissembling: “The use of such maledicent language on the Senate floor is quite out of place, and to accuse other senators of being liars is to skate on very, very thin ice, indeed.”

Rule XIX was nearly invoked in 1988 after Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) accused Sen. H. John Heinz III (R-Pa.) and others of being “spokesmen” for “special interest groups.” But after Heinz rose in protest, Gramm withdrew his remarks.

Cruz’s statement would seem to be a more serious breach of floor comity than Gramm’s. But they both fall well short of other, more distant floor antics — such as the time, during debate on the Compromise of 1850, that Henry S. Foote of Mississippi pulled a pistol on fellow Democrat Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, or the 1902 fistfight between South Carolina Democrats Benjamin R. Tillman and John L. McLaurin.

Presidential ambitions

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), the longest-serving Republican senator, defended McConnell and criticized Cruz to reporters Friday: “I don’t think we make headway around here by implying, even, that other people are liars.”

He also made note of Cruz’s presidential bid, which registered single-digit national support in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll of Republican candidates. “People who run for president do some very interesting things from time to time, so we should allow wide leeway there, too,” Hatch said.

Presidential ambitions have been a source of continuing headaches for McConnell as he has sought to keep the Senate productive in his first months as floor leader. In April, amendments offered by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) helped short-circuit debate on a bill setting up congressional review of an Iran nuclear deal. A month later, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) derailed McConnell’s plan to extend key federal surveillance authorities, which were forced to lapse briefly because of Paul’s objections.

In recent weeks, McConnell signaled that the transportation bill would be a likely vehicle for the Export-Import Bank’s reauthorization. Before Cruz spoke, McConnell said he had no choice but to allow the vote, saying that the bank’s supporters “made it clear they’re ready to stop all other amendments if denied that opportunity.”

“They have already proven they have the votes to back up the threat, as well,” he said, referring to a June 10 test vote in which 65 senators supported reauthorization. “This presents a challenge for the Senate and to opponents of the Ex-Im Bank, like myself, in particular.”

Hatch, who has been at the center of the trade and highway debates as Finance Committee chairman, defended McConnell by saying it has been clear for two months that there would be a vote on the Export-Import Bank — ever since Democrats, particularly Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), threatened to defeat the trade bill over the expiration of the bank’s charter.

“I think everybody knew that he had said that he would help the senator get a vote,” Hatch said. “To me, that was publicly known.”

McConnell said Friday that he considered the dueling health-care and bank amendments to be a “compromise,” noting that a vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act is “something nearly every Republican wants.”

But Cruz, a fierce opponent of the health-care law, was not mollified by McConnell’s move to bring up a repeal vote, calling it “empty showmanship.”

“We’ll have a vote on repealing Obamacare,” he said. “The Republicans will all vote yes; the Democrats will all vote no. It will be at a 60-vote threshold. It will fail. It will be an exercise in meaningless political theater.”

Paul Kane contributed to this report.