‘Utter foolishness”: That’s what Ted Cruz has to say about the agenda Republican leadership is looking to pass in this next meeting of Congress, the lame-duck session. The Texas senator was in Alaska this weekend campaigning for Republican Senate nominee Dan Sullivan, but much of his fire, as always, is being reserved for Republicans themselves.
He doesn’t like the idea of passing anything in the lame duck, and he doesn’t like what leadership has planned for that session or a GOP-controlled House and Senate.
“I think it makes zero sense for Congress to do anything of significance in a lame duck with a bunch of members of Congress who will have just been voted out of office,” Cruz says, before going on to hit the agenda that party leaders have outlined for the next Congress, too.
“If we have a majority and get together and name a bunch of post offices, that will only demoralize the American people,” Cruz says. Republican leaders have bigger plans than naming resolutions, but they have tried to temper conservative expectations for the next Congress.
“We are going to have to convince people that we are not going to be perfect, but let’s at least move the ball down the field and try to do things many of us have wanted to do for a long time,” South Dakota’s John Thune, a member of Senate leadership, told the New York Times. And House majority leader Kevin McCarthy has emphasized the need for Republicans to “prove we could govern,” a line that is becoming something of a refrain from GOP leadership in both chambers.
That’s exactly the wrong way for Republicans to go about leading Congress, Cruz believes. “We saw small-bore leadership in the mid 2000s with Republican leadership and it’s what ushered in the Obama presidency,” he says.
Now, Cruz says, “We need to stand for principle,” emphasizing that Republicans shouldn’t limit themselves to passing bills that Obama will agree to sign into law. (One assumes, of course, that some number of leadership’s proposals would be vetoed by the president, too.)
The lame-duck session, which takes place after the November elections but before new lawmakers take the oath of office in January, presents the first test for Republicans. Cruz panned McCarthy’s plan to pass a long-term funding measure before a new Congress is sworn in. It would give outgoing Senate majority leader Harry Reid a “final hurrah” before Republicans take the reins, he says, something the notoriously combative Cruz is not prepared to do. Instead, Cruz wants to pass a short-term funding measure that would give a Republican Congress some leverage over President Obama — if they’re willing to use the power of the purse to push certain policies.
Cruz also thinks Republicans will hurt themselves with too much legislating during the lame-duck session, when some in the GOP want to collaborate with already-defeated Democrats to pass unpopular policies. One issue, for instance, is a little-noticed policy fight that Cruz believes could hamstring the GOP’s efforts to win over working-class voters: the Internet sales tax.
“That is one of the favorite causes of the corporate lobbyists on K Street, to jack up taxes on millions of mom-and-pop Internet retailers,” Cruz he says. “Now, that helps all the big businesses at the expense of the little guy.”
Cruz’s warnings are part of an effort to rally the conservative grassroots against party leadership, but he also believes that passing conservative legislative priorities will help build a broader political coalition.
Cruz says the alternative to the leadership governing platform isn’t pie-in-the-sky legislating: He just wants Senate Republicans to take up the hundreds of economy-related bills that have already passed the House and died in a Democratic Senate. House speaker John Boehner has made a habit of protesting Reid’s pocket veto of GOP proposals, so it’s possible that the freshman gadfly and Republican leadership could unite behind a number of them.
Some degree of détente could be good for the senator’s presidential prospects. Where Senator Rand Paul started making alliances with the establishment long ago, Cruz embodies the conservative base’s distrust for Republican leadership. Though that sounds like a useful reputation in a Republican primary, you get the sense that Cruz doesn’t quite have the public image he wants.
As he tells it, his fights with leadership have taken place mostly because of his unwillingness to play Washington games.
“What I have tried to do since the day I was elected to the Senate is two things: Do what I said I would do and tell the truth,” he says. “It says something about Washington that those are viewed as such radical courses of action.”
For instance, he refused to grant unanimous consent to a procedural measure that would have allowed Democrats to raise the debt limit in February without any Republican votes, forcing some Republican leaders to vote for the measure — because Cruz was unwilling to support the increase himself.
Cruz has a well known reputation for hectoring Republican leaders, but he wants a political brand that has more general appeal.
He outlined ten priorities for the Republican Congress in a USA Today op-ed earlier this month, which touted several proposals dear to conservative activists — repeal of Obamacare, securing the border, congressional investigations of President Obama’s administration, and undoing Common Core — but didn’t put them at the top of the list. Rather, Cruz wrote: “First, [Republicans should] embrace a big pro-jobs, growth agenda.”
The legislative plan can even feel like an audition for a campaign in a year’s time. “Those who walk the corridors of power in the Obama administration have gotten fat and happy,” he says, adding that Republicans will reap political rewards for enacting conservative policies.
If Cruz loses the coming intra-party debate, he’ll have even more anti-establishment cred come primary season. If he wins, he’ll have something of a legislative record for the primaries and the general. Either way, Cruz’s plan to spar with Republican leadership in 2015 looks to be precisely calculated for 2016.
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.