Even as Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell was on the Senate floor announcing Wednesday that a deal had been struck to reopen the federal government and temporarily raise the debt ceiling without touching funding for the Affordable Care Act, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was holding forth for reporters just outside the chamber, conceding defeat — and proclaiming victory.
No, he wouldn’t seek to block the deal. Sure, he didn’t get what he wanted. But to the suggestion that he had put Congress and the nation through the wringer and “you’ve got nothing for it,” Cruz replied, “I disagree with the premise of that.”
“I think we have seen a remarkable thing happen,” said Cruz, pointing to the more than 2 million Americans who signed a petition to defund the Affordable Care Act. He also cited the House of Representative’s “profile in courage” in refusing to keep the government running if the continuing budget resolution included funding for so-called Obamacare.
“Unfortunately, the Senate chose not to follow the House,” Cruz said. “I would point out that had Senate Republicans united and supported House Republicans, the outcome of this, I believe, would have been very, very different. I wish that had happened, but it did not.”
It was the most remarkable moment yet in a most remarkable Senate career.
Even as news of the budget breakthrough broke across Washington, the question swept across Capitol Hill and cable television – what would Cruz do? Would he stand in its way, because, without Cruz’s acquiescence, was it a done deal? Somehow, a freshman senator in his 10th month in office – and a bugbear to many of his peers – held the fate of the nation in his hands.
“Cruz is unprecedented,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor of politics.
Cruz’s role model, Texas’ former Sen. “Phil Gramm made a splash as a freshman, with Gramm-Rudman-Hollings (a 1985 budget act), but we haven’t ever seen anything like Cruz (has been able to make) in less than a year,” said Norm Ornstein, a scholar of Congress at the American Enterprise Institute.
Even as a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found Republicans bearing the brunt of the blame for the shutdown, and Cruz viewed overall more unfavorably than favorably, his popularity among his tea party base has never been higher.
“He’s eclipsed (Kentucky’s Sen.) Rand Paul as the most vital and vocal tea party leader on Capitol Hill,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said. “Among his core supporters, if anything, it helps him. He was very direct on the campaign trail that he was going to go to Washington and be exactly the kind of senator that he has been. He talked the talk and walked the walk.”
“The pundits saying Cruz has been damaged don’t understand the dynamic in conservative and Republican politics right now,” Ornstein said.
On Friday, Cruz was given a delirious reception when he spoke at the Christian conservative Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. He swept its presidential straw poll with 42 percent of the vote, followed by Dr. Ben Carson and former Sen. Rick Santorum, with 13 percent each, Rand Paul with 6 percent, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., with 5 percent.
Asked Sunday on CNN whether Cruz was now, as Family Research Council President Tony Perkins suggested, “de facto leader” of the Republican Party, Paul said, “We all have a little bit of ego, so I think most of us kind of think, ‘Oh, we’re one of the leaders.’ … But I don’t think any of us are ready to say, ‘Oh, my fellow senator, he’s my leader and I’d follow him off the edge of the cliff.’”
In explaining Wednesday why he wouldn’t try to filibuster the budget accord past Thursday’s deadline for raising the debt ceiling, Cruz said. “There’s nothing to be gained from delaying this vote one day or two days. The outcome will be the same.”
“Cruz goes RINO, says he won’t block final deal, will let country survive,” tweeted Josh Marshall, who runs the liberal political website Talking Points Memo, in mocking reaction.
But any genuine effort to portray Cruz as another “squish” — his contemptuous term for a “Republican in name only” — won’t wash.
“What we accomplished is fighting,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks and a leading tea party strategist.
“Ted Cruz is doing the right thing,” tweeted Erick Erickson, who runs the litmus test conservative site, RedState.com.
“There’s Ted Cruz on TV right now,” said Rush Limbaugh on his radio show. “Ripping this deal. I have to tell you. I admire the guy. He’s unflappable.”
And he’s undaunted, said Paul Begala, the Democratic political consultant and a Texas native, on CNN: “The lesson he takes from this is, ‘I’m bigger than the Republican Party.’”