Ted Cruz’s Debt Ceiling Gamble Could Ruin His Senate Career

National Journal
Michael Catalin
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Michael Catalin
Feb. 12, 2014, 2:45 p.m.

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.

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