Sen. Ted Cruz filibuster angers GOP leaders. Where does fight end?

The Texan clashed openly Wednesday with Sen. Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders over a bill to raise the national debt ceiling. Ted Cruz may have burnished his tea party credentials, but the price could be that he'll be sidelined in the Senate.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, as senators go to the chamber for a vote to extend the Treasury's borrowing authority.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas is unpopular with many establishment Republicans in D.C. They see him as the driving force behind last year’s partial government shutdown, which sent their party’s approval ratings to new lows. Perhaps as a result, Senator Cruz was pretty quiet through the first part of 2014. But now he’s forced GOP Senate leaders into a vote they badly wanted to avoid.

Cruz is doubling down on his outsider status. He’s burning his remaining bridges with a blowtorch, to throw more metaphors into the mix.

Not that he’d see it that way. Cruz describes his actions as consistent with GOP small-government principles. It is party leaders who have moved away from those, according to the Texan.

“Today’s vote is yet another example that establishment politicians from both parties are simply not listening to the American people,” said Cruz in a statement Wednesday after the Senate approved an increase in the national debt ceiling.

Here’s the background: Earlier this week, House Speaker John Boehner (R) gave up and agreed to bring a clean debt-ceiling bill to his chamber floor. He could not get his own caucus to agree on an add-on provision, such as elimination of insurance firm “risk corridors” in Obamacare, to the must-pass debt legislation.

The bill cleared the House with mostly Democratic backing. Then it went to the Senate, where Democrats, with 55 votes, control the majority. Republicans could allow the bill to pass without having their fingerprints upon it. Easy sailing, time to fly home to beat the storm, right?

Wrong. In a caucus meeting prior to the vote, Cruz made it clear he would filibuster the bill. That meant it would need to get 60 votes to proceed to final passage. Five Republican senators would have to join the Democrats in saying “yea.” Otherwise, the US would be right back on the fiscal brink, with Wall Street worried about the government defaulting on its debts and financial markets spinning.

Minority leader Mitch McConnell was particularly displeased. At the GOP meeting there was a “spirited exchange” between Senator McConnell and Cruz, according to a source quoted by right-leaning National Review’s Betsy Woodruff.

McConnell is running for reelection, and he faces a spirited tea party challenger, Matt Bevin, in the primary. So Cruz’s move put him personally in a tough spot.

Long story short, that’s what happened. Late Wednesday McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn, the minority whip, tried to round up some usual suspects. But even GOP moderates such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine apparently declined to jump, unless the leadership went first.

“No Republican wanted to be vote No. 60 to advance a bill to raise the debt ceiling without spending cuts,” according to NBC News’ “First Thoughts” political blog.

So McConnell and Senator Cornyn, described by spectators as “grim-faced,” voted to let the bill proceed. Eventually, a total of 12 Republican senators voted to let the bill proceed. All voted “no” on final passage.

Perhaps Cruz is now at the top of McConnell’s personal list of lawmakers he does not like. Back in Kentucky, Mr. Bevin is already tweeting out anti-McConnell ads that feature the Senate minority leader and a blank check made out to President Obama.

We’ve got a couple of thoughts on that, however.

McConnell may have himself to blame. Cruz did not pioneer debt-limit politics. For years, Republicans have tried to use this legislation as a lever to enact policies otherwise unpopular with Democrats. As Brian Beutler argues in Salon, this has created an impression among many in the GOP rank and file that Republicans should not agree to a raise of the debt ceiling without an attempt at quid pro quo.

“McConnell and Cornyn invited all this upon themselves,” writes Mr. Beutler.

Cruz's Senate future may be uncomfortable. That said, Cruz is still going to be a backbencher in a caucus whose leaders may feel he has attacked them personally. That could mean few favors, chilly meetings, and less desirable committee assignments, among other things.

State primary polling is not particularly accurate, and Kentucky’s GOP primary is still months away, but all indications are that McConnell’s lead over his tea party challenger is in the double digits. If anything, McConnell appears more concerned about the Democratic candidate, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who leads by a narrow margin in recent polls.

Yet right now, Republicans also have a better-than-even chance of capturing Senate control. That means McConnell could return as majority leader. Hmmm, are there any offices in Senate basements to which Cruz could be exiled?

Cruz will be more popular than ever on the right. If Cruz wants to run for president as leader of the tea party right, he’s done a good job solidifying his credentials. After all, Wednesday's debt-limit vote is a symbol of the split in the Republican Party, not a cause of it. The Senate Conservatives Fund on Wednesday unveiled a tough new ad comparing McConnell’s actions with IRS scrutiny of conservative nonprofit groups seeking tax-exempt status.

“Bullying. Threats. Intimidation. The IRS? No, try Mitch McConnell,” the ad begins.

In that context, Cruz’s filibuster push was a direct challenge, not just to the Senate GOP leadership, but to the party as a whole.

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