Even among Republicans, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas is one of Washington’s most divisive figures. Activists love him, but leadership staffers and many of his colleagues can’t stand him — especially his latest effort to connect a government-spending bill with the defunding of Obamacare. After a Senate luncheon on Tuesday, several Republicans told me they’re tired of Cruz’s campaign, and one senator, after rolling his eyes, called it a “Passion play.”
The internecine tensions spilled over to the House on Wednesday, when a group of Republicans knocked Cruz on Twitter for appearing to back down from the defunding fight. Speaker John Boehner had just decided to bring a Cruz-inspired bill to the floor, and instead of rallying the Senate, Cruz issued a statement that left the burden of defunding Obamacare squarely on the lower chamber.
“Harry Reid will no doubt try to strip the defund language from the continuing resolution, and right now he likely has the votes to do so,” Cruz said. “At that point, House Republicans must stand firm, hold their ground, and continue to listen to the American people.”
Of course, Cruz’s acknowledgement of the near-impossibility of passing a defunding bill through the Democratic-controlled Senate is an accurate reading of political reality. But House Republicans didn’t care; they were apoplectic with Cruz not only for laying the responsibility for defunding on them, but for making them seem weak. “If Cruz doesn’t help us in the Senate to pass a defunding bill, we’ll end up having to pass a normal CR,” complains a veteran House Republican. “It’ll be pathetic, but I expect him to slam us for it.”
House insiders say a handful of House Republicans cursed Cruz in the cloakroom on Wednesday, and a leadership source says angry e-mails were exchanged among GOP staffers who consider Cruz to be a charlatan. “Cruz keeps raising conservatives’ hopes, and then, when we give him what he wants, he doesn’t have a plan to follow through,” an aide fumes. “He’s an amateur.” Another aide says, “Nancy Pelosi is more well-liked around here.”
Cruz, however, tells me House Republicans are wrong to be infuriated. In an interview, he says his goal was never to whip together votes in the Senate for a defunding bill; it was always to inspire a grassroots uprising that would rattle Congress and President Obama, and hopefully defund Obamacare.
“I’m convinced there is a new paradigm in politics — the rise of the grassroots,” Cruz says. He cites Senator Rand Paul’s filibuster on drone policy, and the debates on Syria and gun control, as recent examples of how an “overwhelming” number of phone calls and e-mails from constituents can force the president to buckle.
“And on Obamacare, I’ve said, from the start, that if typical Washington rules apply, we can’t win this fight,” he explains. “If the forums in which we make this case consist of the smoke-filled rooms of Washington, the votes aren’t there. The only way this fight will be won is if the American people rise up and hold our elected officials accountable.”
Cruz says he “salutes” Boehner and House Republicans for moving forward with a vote on defunding, but he stands by his belief that one vote this week isn’t enough. “When I say the House needs to stand strong, it’s because the fight will be won or lost in the House of Representatives,” he says. “I can’t win this fight, and Mike Lee can’t win this fight,” but he believes the House GOP can.
Cruz’s advisers agree, and Chip Roy, his chief of staff, has pushed back hard against Cruz’s House critics. “Senator Cruz is doing what he said he would do when he came to Washington,” Roy tells me. “He promised to do everything he can to stop Obamacare before it begins hurting real people and further harms our economy.”
“His staff is working with whomever we can to achieve that goal, including House and Senate staff,” Roy adds. “For every story about a staffer grumbling behind the scenes, there are dozens of staffers who tell us how excited they are Senator Cruz is standing up to business as usual.”
For the moment, though, the divide between Cruz and his fellow Republicans is growing. House Republicans will pass their defund-CR bill on Friday, and it will head to a quick death in the Senate. Cruz may shrug off his detractors, but as the deadline for government funding nears, he has become a top target — not just for Democrats, but also for Republicans who want to pin the mess on him.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.