After Losing Big on Senate Strategy, Ted Cruz Pledges to Shut Down the Government Unless Obamacare Is Defunded

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 19 2013 9:49 AM

After Losing Big on Senate Strategy, Ted Cruz Pledges to Shut Down the Government Unless Obamacare Is Defunded

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Ted Cruz's gambits play very differently in D.C. and in the outside world.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

National Review's omnipresent Washington reporter Robert Costa has followed Rand Paul and Ted Cruz to Iowa, where the two stars are meeting with conservative pastors and (in Cruz's case) helping Republicans raise funds. Costa reports on what happened thus far:

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

What an odd way to end the week. Let's recap. The year started with Democrats commanding 55 votes in the Senate, and maybe 51 votes for filibuster reform. The party threatened to change the rules, but backed off, in part because some senior members and some moderates weren't comfortable with ramming through changes. They wanted, instead, to show Republicans how close they got, and expect them to behave better.

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They didn't. The reckoning came in less than a month, when Republicans built a beachead of resistence to Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel. Cruz's strategy consisted of demanding that Hagel prove he wasn't taking foreign money from America's enemies, and getting a critical mass of Republicans to back him up on the request. When Hagel fell one vote short for cloture, Cruz took the credit, and Democrats and a number of Republicans were incensed. John McCain, who'd helped craft that filibuster deal, told the New York Times that Cruz had been disrespectful.

Hagel was confirmed anyway.

Two months later the sluggish progress toward a gun control bill was upended with Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin announcing a watered-down background checks amendment. Cruz, again, led the opposition, by asking Republicans to filibuster the motion to proceed to debate. It was an obvious misfire, as a Wall Street Journal editorial explained at the time.* "In an instant, these GOP wizards have taken the onus off Senate Democrats and made Republicans the media's gun-control focus," wrote the Journal. "Mr. Reid is now bellowing about Republicans blocking a vote." Republicans ended up allowing the debate to continue, then filibustering the Manchin-Toomey bill only after Democrats had taken tough votes on gun control.

Cruz took credit anyway, telling Texas Tea Party activists that the "squishes" had been proven wrong, even though they'd rejected his strategy for a better one to kill the bill.

Then came this week's filibuster showdown. The death of New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg reduced the Democrats, temporarily, to 54 senators. But the caucus, with at most three exceptions, agreed to move ahead to end the 60-vote threshold on non-lifetime nominees. When you talked to Democrats, you understood why they'd built this new consensus—they were fed up with the minority party blocking votes then crowing about their brilliance. Republicans, backed into a corner, agreed to another deal cut by John McCain, which allowed votes on all of the held-up Democratic nominees. By the end of the week, the CPFB director, labor secretary, and EPA chief were confirmed by largely partisan votes, with no filibusters.

That's the story of Ted Cruz's strategic acumen in the Senate. The paradox is that the theatrics that completely backfire in D.C. are embraced by activists in the bright world outside.

Correction, July 19, 2013: David Weigel misidentified a Wall Street Journal editorial as a Kim Strassel column.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.