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Cruz Senate Stunt Goes Unpunished as Old Tools Don’t Work

By Kathleen Hunter
February 14, 2014 5:43 PM EST 715 Comments
Ted Cruz
Ted Cruz

A growing group of Ted Cruz’s Republican Senate colleagues are infuriated with his tactics.

So frustrated was Arizona Senator John McCain with the latest, forcing fellow Republicans to take a politically risky vote on lifting the debt ceiling, that yesterday he tweeted a Wall Street Journal editorial accusing the Texas lawmaker of instigating “needless drama that helps to explain why Republicans remain a minority.”

Yet there’s not much McCain, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell or other Republicans can do to change Cruz’s behavior.

“In this day and age, there are no tools available to a leader to punish a member like Senator Cruz, especially because Senator Cruz doesn’t care what either the leader or the rest of his caucus thinks,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.

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Cruz’s insistence Feb. 12 on a 60-vote threshold to advance legislation lifting the nation’s borrowing cap foiled his party leadership’s plan to let the measure move forward with only Democratic votes. He led the October fight to defund the 2010 health care law, resulting in a partial government shutdown and the party’s cratering in public opinion polls.

The Republican Party’s favorability was at a record low of 28 percent in a Gallup Poll conducted Oct. 3-6, during the shutdown. That was down 10 percentage points from the previous month and 15 points below Democrats.

Old Tools

In decades past, leaders could rein in such behavior by threatening to take away coveted committee assignments, withdrawing financial support, or shunning lawmakers. None of those tactics are effective in a political era in which campaign cash flows freely from outside the party machinery and cable outlets offer many ways to grab attention and influence.

In addition, the potential 2016 presidential aspirant who is aligned with the small-government Tea Party movement has demonstrated scant interest in cultivating Senate allies or building legislative coalitions, making him even more impervious to pressure from his colleagues.

The risk for Republicans is that Cruz will press similar votes and undermine the party’s ability to win the net six seats needed to gain control of the Senate. Republican infighting has twice, in 2010 and again in 2012, blown up its strategy for retaking the chamber.

McConnell had to vote “yes” on advancing the debt bill to bring along enough fellow Republicans -- immediately providing fodder for his Republican opponent in the state’s May 20 primary, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin.

Punishment Backfire

House Speaker John Boehner in 2012 retaliated against four Republicans who went against him on budget and spending issues, by kicking them off the Budget and Financial Services committees. The move only liberated them to speak more boldly against the leadership.

House Republican leaders this week removed Louisiana Representative Bill Cassidy from their whip team after he joined Democrats to press for a vote on legislation to prevent an increase in federal flood insurance premiums, said a Republican aide who sought anonymity. Cassidy is running against Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu.

There’s no sign that McConnell will seek to punish Cruz, whose committee assignments include Armed Services, Judiciary and Commerce, Science and Transportation, by bumping him from those panels.

Campaign Committee

Nor are there discussions of stripping Cruz of his leadership role at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, where he’s serving as vice chairman for “grassroots outreach,” said NRSC spokeswoman Brook Hougesen.

Cruz “has has been a powerful voice warning about the dangers of Obamacare and the lawlessness of the Obama administration,” Hougesen said.

The Texan hasn’t endorsed any Republican candidates in contested primaries, including those that involve incumbents, and has said he has no plans to do so.

Cruz has maintained close ties to the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee founded by former South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint that has helped elect Tea Party-backed senators since 2010 and is targeting McConnell.

“We appreciate the support that he has given to our organization, and we look forward to working with him in the future,” said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the group, which helped Cruz upset Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst in the 2012 Republican primary and win his Senate seat.

‘Conservative Principles’

Before last year’s shutdown, Hoskins’s group posted a video on Twitter Sept. 26 congratulating Cruz “for standing up for conservative principles.”

The 90-second video is a montage of media coverage of Cruz’s bid to control the Senate floor for more than 21 hours to protest Obamacare. It opens with a narrator declaring: “Most Republicans promise to fight for conservative principles during the campaign, but then let us down after they’re elected. Ted Cruz is different. Ted Cruz delivers.”

The group, which has already spent more than $1 million this cycle, has endorsed Bevin in the Kentucky race and this week aired a web ad criticizing McConnell’s past votes in favor of debt-limit increases.

It’s also backing President Barack Obama’s second cousin, Milton Wolf, in his bid to oust fellow Kansas Republican Pat Roberts as well as Mississippi state senator Chris McDaniel, who is challenging Republican Senator Thad Cochran.

Top Financiers

SCF and another Washington-based small-government advocacy group, the Club for Growth, were Cruz’s top 2012 financiers, which makes him immune to any threats from party leaders to restrict the campaign money flow.

Donors to those groups shipped Cruz $1.7 million of his total $14.5 million haul, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. The two groups provided another $7.1 million in outside advertising to help him win.

Cruz, who often begins his answers to reporters’ questions by saying “outside of Washington,” has gone out of his way to portray himself as an outsider willing to challenge the White House and his party’s establishment.

Asked this week whether McConnell should be replaced as Senate Republican leader, Cruz dodged a chance to buck up his leader and said that was a decision “for the voters of Kentucky to make.”

Obama, speaking to House Democrats today in Cambridge, Maryland, credited unity among his party’s lawmakers with staving off spending cuts or other conditions some Republicans including Cruz wanted to attach to a debt-limit increase.

‘Stick Together’

“The fact that we were able to pass a clean debt limit is just one example of why when you guys are unified, you guys stick together, this country is better off,” Obama said.

For their part, Senate Republicans are “getting used to Senator Cruz’s style of operating, which is to continue to put them in very difficult positions,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, who was an aide to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. “He is in it for a variety of reasons, but most likely in it for his future presidential ambitions.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kathleen Hunter in Washington at khunter9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jodi Schneider at jschneider50@bloomberg.net

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