Sen. Ted Cruz gambled and lost Wednesday in a bid to persuade his Republican colleagues to take another stand on the nation's rising debt, reopening old wounds that could make him a permanent pariah to party leaders.
Cruz demanded a cloture vote on a bill to raise the debt ceiling, forcing his Republican brethren — including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — to cast some politically difficult votes.
Afterward, the tempestuous Texan was not the least bit humbled or apologetic. In fact, asked whether McConnell should be replaced as party leader, Cruz didn't pause. "You know, that is ultimately a decision for the voters of Kentucky to make," he said, failing to defend McConnell, who faces a difficult reelection fight.
"Today was a classic victory for Washington establishment interests," Cruz went on. "The people who lost today were the American people who find the fiscal and economic conditions of this nation even worse because of a lack of leadership."
Some Republicans who voted for cloture but against the bill itself turned the leadership question back on Cruz, arguing that he had no plan or legislation waiting in the wings had the bill been defeated.
"What's the other strategy? Default?" asked Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska. "See how the world reacts to that? See what the stock market does? I think to be a leader you have to do very hard things, and so he's new here."
The votes Wednesday recalled the divisions between Republicans during the October shutdown, when colleagues like Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee disagreed with the political efficacy of Cruz's approach. Indeed, Corker voted for cloture Wednesday, noting that Republicans could have forced only Democrats to vote to hike the debt limit if a filibuster had not been threatened.
In fact, Republicans could have agreed to a straight up-or-down vote had Cruz not objected. Instead, Senate Democrats were forced to round up enough GOP support to reach a three-fifths majority.
The drama unfolded in scores of private conversations as the cloture vote was held open for an hour. Only five Republican supporters were needed to reach the 60-vote threshold, but as the vote closed it became clear leaders were trying to round up more GOP votes. When McConnell and Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas signaled a yes vote, there was an audible gasp in the press gallery above the chamber.
After an hour of arm-twisting, 12 Republican senators — including McConnell — voted to advance the bill, which was then approved 55-43 and sent to President Obama. The bill will lift the $17 trillion debt ceiling until March 2015.
"In my view, every Senate Republican should have stood together and said what every one of us tells our constituents back home, which is that we will not go along with raising the debt ceiling while doing nothing to fix the underlying out-of-control spending problem," Cruz said.
After the vote, Republican senators heaped praise on McConnell and his leadership team, drawing a sharp contrast with Cruz. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah had publicly said he would vote no on cloture, and was asked why he changed. "I saw politics being played. I didn't want it to be a political game," Hatch said. "The key vote, of course, is whether you vote for the debt ceiling."
Only that's not the key vote for Cruz and some other conservatives, who want to focus on reducing spending.
"The debt ceiling is a fire alarm, and what these people are doing is unplugging the fire alarm," said Sen. James Risch of Idaho. "There's a fire burning. We need to put out the fire, not unplug the fire alarm."
Relaxed-looking Democrats watched the Republican vote-counting from their side of the aisle. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat, drew a direct link between the shutdown, Wednesday's vote, and Cruz.
"I think his memory doesn't seem to last longer than six months," Schumer said. "It puts his own people on the spot. Democrats have traditionally voted for the debt ceiling in the past. I think it puts his side much more on the spot than our side, and I think they think that."
Cruz brushed the notion aside. How does it feel, he was asked, making Republicans like McConnell take tough votes?
"It should have been a very easy vote," Cruz said.