Can Mitch McConnell handle Ted Cruz? Just maybe, he can.

Sen. Ted Cruz has already flexed his influence in the House with last year's government shutdown. Now, he'll be part of the Senate majority and presumed majority leader Mitch McConnell might have his hands full.

David J. Phillip/AP
Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas waves to the crowd at a Republican victory party Tuesday in Austin, Texas.

His dry humor on display, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell began his victory press conference on Wednesday with insider playfulness that had outsized import.

The presumed soon-to-be leader of a GOP-controlled Senate started by briefly reviewing his takeaways from the election, including unhappiness with dysfunction in Washington. He then named some of the people who had called him that day: President Obama, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, House Speaker John Boehner. Pause. “And Ted Cruz, too.”

An understated smile crossed his face, and a few of the reporters chuckled at his inclusion of the fiery, tea party senator from Texas in this “A” list of power brokers. Senator Cruz can do serious damage to Senator McConnell’s stated intention to “work together” with the president on issues where they can agree. The unanswered question in Washington is: Will Cruz play the spoiler?

This is the senator who led the partial government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act last year. He meets regularly with House tea partyers, to the great annoyance of “establishment” Republicans in that chamber. Cruz is also eyeing the presidency and can be expected to draw sharp contrasts with the White House, as well as with moderate “establishment” Republicans. He has demurred when asked about voting for McConnell as the new majority leader.

In the Senate, where it takes only one person to launch a blocking filibuster, but 60 votes to remove it, anyone on McConnell’s right flank (as well as any Democrat on his left) could make trouble. But Cruz seems the most inclined to “break some crockery,” as one observer put it.

This very point is what put a momentary twinkle in the eye of McConnell. After including Cruz in his list of callers, he added, “all of whom, I think, have the view that we ought to see what areas of agreement there are and see if we can make some progress for the country.” 

He then downplayed the Cruz factor throughout the press conference, saying pointedly that “there will be no government shutdowns and no default on the national debt.”

And he could be right. It might turn out that Cruz – and others on the right – will not be the threat that they appear to be. Here are four reasons why:

The tea party made no Senate gains. Republicans leaders went to great pains this year to recruit more moderate Senate candidates and defeat tea party challengers in the primaries. Not one got through that sieve, which means no big cheering section for Cruz.

“I’m pretty familiar with our conference, including the new members who are coming in,” McConnell said Wednesday. “The vast majority of them don’t feel they were sent to Washington to fight all the time.”

A more open Senate. McConnell promises a new day in the Senate. He wants to return to “regular order” – to put power back in the hands of committee chairs, to allow amendments from both parties to come to the floor, to foster free and open debate. If his effort lasts, and that’s a big if, it will have the distinct advantage of offering to senators such as Cruz a way to make their points – and blow off steam – through amendments, legislative deals, and other means.

Converging views. Establishment Republicans such as McConnell and tea party Republicans such as Cruz agree more than they differ. That means there can be ways for McConnell to align with Cruz on issues, and even on some tactics.

Attempting to repeal Obamacare, in whole or in part, moving to roll back regulations through budgetary maneuvers, pushing forward on the Keystone XL pipeline – these are all areas of commonality with Cruz.

When asked in an interview how McConnell might deal with GOP “purists,” spokesman Don Stewart replied: "There's going to be less inclination to gum up the works if it's a proposal that you support." 

The other side of Cruz. Politicians are often presented as either-or types. This week, The Daily Beast wondered which Cruz would be coming to Washington: the one that told writer Tim Mak that he is willing to work with the White House, and has helped fashion bipartisan legislation in the past? Or the one that gives a red-meat speech about the need to do “everything humanly possible to repeal Obamacare?"

People similarly may have wondered about Cruz going to Kansas to stump for beleaguered colleague and incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts – hardly a tea-party type.

The Daily Beast column prompted Cruz’s spokesperson Catherine Frazier to respond that “it is wrong to suggest” that Cruz’s two postures “are mutually exclusive.”

Give-and-take, block-and-tackle, is a balancing act in Washington. After five terms in office, McConnell clearly knows this. Perhaps the junior senator from Texas is learning this, too.

It cannot be lost on Cruz that he, too, will need to show voters something for his years in Washington, and that if incompetency and gridlock boot the Republicans two years from now, his presidential wings will be also clipped.

The question is how McConnell and Cruz will perform this balancing act, and whether they will succeed at it.

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