WASHINGTON — Three hours into his Senate speech-a-thon, Sen. Ted Cruz recalled that Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster criticizing U.S. drone policy was seen at first as "curious if not quixotic," but ultimately "transformed the debate."
Cruz, a Texas Republican, took control of the Senate floor Tuesday to herald his campaign to eliminate the money needed to implement President Obama's healthcare law. He hoped for a galvanizing moment similar to the one sparked by his Kentucky colleague in March.
Congress "is held in such disrepute" because both parties "have refused to listen to the people," Cruz said, arguing that Americans oppose the healthcare law. "We need to make D.C. listen."
He spoke to a near-empty Senate chamber, save for several dozen staff members, some observers in the galleries and a Democratic senator who was presiding.
Cruz has vowed to use any means necessary to keep the Democratic-controlled Senate from restoring the money for Obamacare to the spending bill that passed the Republican-led House. His strategy could lead to a government shutdown on Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year begins.
But Cruz is finding himself increasingly isolated. A quirk in the way the Senate will vote on the measure has allowed his opponents to claim, as even Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did, that Cruz's approach would "shut down the government and keep Obamacare funded. And none of us want that."
The episode appears to be another example of the limits of the conservative insurgence in Washington, where Democrats control the Senate and the White House. It also has magnified Republican unease with Cruz's style and tactics.
Cruz has been in the Senate less than a year, but already is seen as a potential GOP presidential contender. He has defied the unspoken Senate rule that new lawmakers maintain a low profile and defer to senior colleagues.
Just weeks into his term, Cruz drew a rare public rebuke from colleagues during an open committee hearing after he suggested — admitting that he had no evidence — that Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel may have received income from hostile governments.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun safety legislation, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sharply admonished Cruz for what she viewed as his lecturing tone in a question about the 2nd Amendment. "Senator, I've been on this committee for 20 years," she said.
The "Defund Obamacare" campaign is not Cruz's passion alone — fellow Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida have championed the strategy as well. It has wide support among House Republicans, who forced their leaders to adopt it.
But Lee, after more than two years in the Senate, lacks the national profile that Cruz has generated. Rubio, another possible presidential contender, has not invested as much political capital as Cruz on the issue.
Cruz, who upset an establishment-backed candidate in the Republican primary en route to winning his Senate seat, made the issue a personal crusade this summer. That elevated his prominence among party activists, who carry significant weight in Republican presidential primaries.
When the House agreed to vote on a spending bill that would curtail funding for the healthcare law, Cruz drew scorn from conservatives for saying the effort was likely to be defeated in the Senate, where Democrats had enough votes to undo it. When the House passed the measure Friday, House Republican leaders pointedly referred to the promise of some "to leave no stone unturned" to support their effort in the Senate.
Cruz downplayed the rift with House conservatives, but began to take a series of procedural steps to stymie debate on the bill — including Tuesday's extended floor speech.
His protest differed from Paul's nearly 13-hour filibuster in March mainly on technical grounds. Paul seized control of the Senate floor, delaying all other business. Cruz aimed to hold the floor until the Senate votes Wednesday on a procedural motion, and scheduled his speech with Senate leaders. Cruz even diverted from the issue briefly to read Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" on the Senate floor, saying it was his daughters' bedtime and they would be watching him on C-SPAN.
Jim DeMint, a former South Carolina senator and president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, praised Cruz's leadership on the issue, calling him the rare politician who has "come to Washington and tries to do what he says he would do."
"I understand from my time there, if you start to rock the boat you won't have many friends on the inside," DeMint said. "But he's got a lot of friends on the outside."
On Tuesday, Cruz set his focus on a key procedural vote likely to occur Saturday, or perhaps sooner, that would end debate and allow votes on the bill. He argued that an affirmative vote to do that was a vote to allow Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to strip the House bill of the provision defunding Obamacare. Outside conservative groups, including the Club for Growth, agree with Cruz.
But many of his Republican colleagues, including McConnell, said a vote against the motion would kill a bill they support. Cruz argued that he was making a principled stand for the American people, while his critics were using Senate procedure as cover to avoid risking a government shutdown.
McConnell said that a yes vote was a "no-brainer."
And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said, "Defunding Obamacare is a goal all Republicans share, but the tactics we deploy in achieving that goal can have a backlash."
Republicans held back-to-back closed-door meetings to consider their strategy Tuesday before Cruz spoke. Some advocated compressing the time for debate so the Senate could pass a bill with enough time for the House to attach other healthcare-related amendments and return it to the Senate.
Republicans have discussed attaching an amendment to repeal a medical device tax that some Democratic senators also dislike. Otherwise, the House could have only hours to act on the Senate's bill before the government shuts down.
Cruz, though, said he would support nothing less than a vote to defund the Affordable Care Act.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times