WASHINGTON – Texas Sen. Ted Cruz escalated his conflict with fellow Republicans Tuesday when he stepped up his attacks on President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, complicating House GOP efforts to pass a funding bill that would avert a government shutdown next week.
Launching a marathon speech modeled on old-fashioned filibusters, Cruz also informed his Senate GOP colleagues that he would try to stretch the debate well into the weekend, according to senators who attended private huddles Tuesday. With Senate passage all but certain, including funds for the health law, senior Republicans had hoped to allow the measure to advance quickly to give House Speaker John Boehner more time to respond with a different version of the legislation.
Instead, the freshman senator took the floor Tuesday afternoon promising to speak until he was “no longer able to stand.” His effort to block the legislation stood almost no chance of success, as the series of votes advancing it are locked in and most of his Republicans have abandoned him in the effort.
The Cruz talkathon was the latest example of the increasingly stark division among Republicans, both on Capitol Hill and nationally. The Texas newcomer, just 42 and nine months into office, is carrying the banner for conservatives urging a take-no-prisoners approach in confronting the president, even if it means shuttering the government.
“A great many Texans, a great many Americans feel they do not have a voice, and so I hope to play some very small role in providing the voice,” Cruz declared.
But the move angered senior Republicans, who complained that Cruz and the junior senators pushing this strategy did not understand the wounds the GOP suffered during the mid-1990s shutdown battles with President Bill Clinton. Back then, the party controlled both the House and Senate, a luxury when compared to its majority in the House today.
“I just don’t believe anybody benefits from shutting the government down, and certainly Republicans don’t. We learned that in 1995,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, the dean of the GOP caucus. “We’re in the minority, we have to find a way of standing up for our principles without immolating ourselves in front of everybody, in a way when we don’t have the votes to do it.”
Some suggested this was the latest example of a party adrift, both on policy and strategic thinking. “We haven’t had much of a strategy on anything to this point. Everybody’s shooting from the hip,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss said.
Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell originally preferred a different approach that would have required Democrats to vote for the health care funds, which GOP senators could have symbolically opposed.
Cruz played a leading role, along with outside conservative groups, in pushing House Republicans to take a harder line. House Republicans relented and on Friday passed a bill exactly as Cruz wanted.
“We don’t need fake fights. We don’t need fake votes. We need real change. We need a better economy, we need more jobs,” Cruz said early Tuesday afternoon, rejecting the original Boehner-McConnell plan.
Throughout the afternoon and evening a half-dozen colleagues joined Cruz on the floor, including Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, two 2016 presidential aspirants. Cruz could yield to colleagues for long-form questions but could not leave the floor or sit down.
After a little more than two hours, Cruz had discussed an unusual mix of subjects, ranging from opposition to the health care law; the unemployment rate among African-American teenagers; how his father, Rafael Cruz, used to make green eggs and ham for breakfast; a recent awards show acceptance speech by actor Ashton Kutcher; and the restaurants Denny’s, Benihana and White Castle.
When he yielded briefly to take questions, the other senators would give extended remarks on their opposition to the health care law and then ask Cruz questions that set up the Texas senator to continue his remarks.
By holding the floor, Cruz and his allies are launching what looked to most Americans like a traditional filibuster, fixed in the popular imagination by Jimmy Stewart’s performance in the film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
But even if Cruz were physically capable of speaking for more than 24 hours — the longest filibuster in U.S. history is 24 hours, 18 minutes by the late Sen. Strom Thurmond and other Southern senators opposed to civil rights laws — there are parliamentary procedures in place that dictate that Cruz will have to yield the floor by Wednesday afternoon at the latest.
At that point, the Senate is scheduled to hold a key procedural test vote that is near certain to pass with bipartisan support. McConnell had hoped that he could get Cruz and his band of allies to relent so that the Senate could pass something by Friday. He even convened an extra meeting, in addition to the weekly Tuesday policy luncheon, in which several senators said Cruz was encouraged to drop some of his delaying tactics or else Boehner would not get the legislation until late Sunday or early Monday.
Cruz told the group he would use every tool possible to drag out the vote.
“My own view is that it would be to the advantage of our colleagues in the House, who are in the majority, to shorten the process, and if the majority leader were to ask us to shorten the process, I would not object,” McConnell told reporters after the two meetings.
“If the House doesn’t get what we send over there until Monday, they’re in a pretty tough spot,” McConnell said later. “My own view is the House, having passed a bill that I really like and that I support . . . I hate to put them in a tough spot.”
If Cruz holds firm, Boehner will have just hours to decide his next move. He might try to quickly pass a new version of the funding legislation, with some conservative sweeteners, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned that such a move done just hours before Monday’s deadline at the stroke-of-midnight would guarantee a federal government shutdown. There would simply not be enough time to get through the Senate’s messy parliamentary hurdles to avoid at least a temporary shutdown.
Cruz, who began speaking at 2:41 p.m. EDT, was quickly joined by Sen. Mike Lee, who was the original architect of the strategy to defund Obama’s health care law or shut down the government. Their filibuster is the culmination of a strategy they began developing in the summer when Lee, first elected in 2010, started looking for allies for a strategy to defund the law by using annual spending bills for federal agencies as potential leverage.
Lee and Cruz launched a commercial campaign that targeted fellow Republicans with ads designed to pressure GOP senators to support their shutdown strategy. Senior colleagues have rejected the approach, and instead grew more angry.
“I led the charge to shut down the government in 1995, and you know, I thought we had a good case. But the truth of the matter is that if at this time next week we haven’t funded the government, we’re going to get more blame than Democrats,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was a House member in 1995.