Sen. Ted Cruz is smack in the middle of the No. 1 political story in the country, has energized his party’s conservative base and has become the most visible 2016 Republican presidential wannabe in an early – and crowded – field.
Politicians live for these kinds of moments.
A senator for not yet even a year, the Texas Republican is at the epicenter of the faceoff between his party and the Democrats that may well lead to a government shutdown Oct. 1.
Elected in November in his first bid for office, he started an unlikely crusade this summer to force House of Representatives Republicans to defund the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – which they did last week.
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Now Cruz is the Senate point man in a long-shot but symbolic effort for tea party conservatives to champion a House bill that pairs a temporary funding of the federal government past Oct. 1 with a defunding of Obamacare, their political bete noire.
“He’s not trying to win,” said Bill Miller, an Austin, Texas-based political consultant with both Republican and Democratic clients, commenting on Cruz’s Obamacare fight. “He’s trying to make a statement. He’s doing this for the attention.”
Cruz spoke all night and early this morning about the dangers of Obamacare as well as several other things that he tied to it, such as the repressive regime of Cuba. Cruz, whose father is from Cuba, talked about socialized medicine and the way people flee the communist island. He got some relief from talking continuously when supportive senators, including Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rand Paul, R-Ky, and Pat Roberts, R-Kansas.
Asked be Roberts how he was doing after 17 hours standing, Cruz said, "I'm doing fabulous."
But his own party’s Senate leadership is not on board with his strategy. More mainstream Republican conservatives have basically labeled it a fool’s errand because it has virtually no chance of success and could very well lead to more bad press and public disfavor for the GOP, especially if a compromise to fund the government proves elusive.
Indeed, “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace said that “top Republicans” had sent him opposition research “to hammer Cruz” during their televised interview.
On Tuesday afternoon, Cruz took to the Senate floor in what he said was a filibuster that would last all night, talking against the Affordable Care Act with likeminded GOP conservative Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
“I intend to speak until I am no longer able to stand,” he said as he began just before 2:41 p.m. EDT.
He appeared to be beginning a talkathon to prevent a vote, a time-honored piece of Capitol Hill theater. But in reality Senate procedures were already in place for a preliminary vote Wednesday morning.
Repeatedly, Cruz said that people were complaining about Obamacare but that “no one in D.C. is listening.” At one point, he said to a largely empty Senate chamber, save for a smattering of tourists in the visitors’ gallery, “Most Americans could not give a flying flick about what goes on in Washington.”
Cruz’s legislatives tactics have a Rube Goldberg-esque quality. His ploy is to get Senate Republicans to vote against the House bill on Wednesday – the one that funds government and defunds Obamacare – on a procedural motion and then band together to oppose a likely Democratic amendment to strip the Obamacare measure from the bill, which would just leave a bill to temporarily fund the government.
The freshman lawmaker, who angered House Republicans last week by publicly conceding a loss in the Democratic-controlled Senate, is looking beyond this week’s drama.
“Sen. Cruz clearly sees himself as a leader of the conservative movement, which is not quite the same as a leader of the Republican Party,” said Bill Schneider, a distinguished senior fellow and resident scholar at Third Way, a politically centrist Washington think tank. “He is cultivating a following among grassroots conservatives. That kind of following could be useful for a presidential campaign.”
Sarah Palin, a Cruz mentor and tea party favorite who was the Republican Party’s 2008 vice presidential nominee, wrote in an op-ed last week on a conservative website that it was time for “the Senate to put itself on Cruz Control.”
Many say his endgame may well be a White House run in 2016. His office says he’s focused on being a senator, despite trips to three key early and pivotal GOP primary states: Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. His moves follow the strategy that the Ivy League-trained lawyer used to great success in Texas.
Although Cruz had been known mainly in legal and business circles as the appointed Texas solicitor general, he went on a statewide barnstorming tour in 2011 to appeal to hard-core tea party activists.
He beat the GOP establishment candidate, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, in a primary runoff for the seat vacated by Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. The November general election was a foregone conclusion in Republican Texas.
From the beginning, Cruz never played the traditional keep-your-head-down role of a Senate freshman. He has dismissively lectured senior members, like his patronizing retort about the Constitution to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., during an assault weapons debate earlier this year; or his veiled accusations at former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel during his confirmation hearing to become defense secretary that he took money from foreign governments.
How does his latest political gambit fit into his larger plans?
“Cruz is thinking about gratifying the tea party wing in states with primaries,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. “He’s interested in 2016 presidential possibilities. If he can’t lock up the love of the tea party wing, he’s not going to worry about the institutional wing.”
By positioning himself as the leading Republican to oppose the Affordable Care Act and by doing it in such a dramatic way, Cruz is attempting to grab the tea party mantle away from Paul, his closest conservative rival.
In the process, he is further distancing himself from the Republican establishment, notably his own state’s senior senator, John Cornyn, the Senate minority whip, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Both face re-election in 2014 and both are potentially vulnerable to a tea party primary challenge for not being conservative enough.
Cruz said he will not endorse in the 2014 Senate primaries, a curious position given his role as vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which usually defends incumbents, and especially since one of them is his colleague from Texas.
“I think Cruz does have a strategy,” said Bruce Buchanan, a presidential expert at the University of Texas in Austin. “He sees Obamacare, widely unpopular as it is, as his best vehicle for showing courageous leadership against all odds, which he perceives as his best chance (as a rookie) at the Republican presidential nomination. He is indifferent to the reactions of Republicans in Congress, as it is ordinary, very conservative voters who will vote in the Republican primaries, not members of Congress.”