Cruz’in for a Bruising

Cruz's play boxed in McConnell, giving fodder to the Republican leaders' Tea Party opponent

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Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call / Getty Images

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Heritage Action CEO Mike Needham at the Conservative Policy Summit in Washington on Monday, Feb. 10, 2014.

The relationship between Senator Ted Cruz and his Republican colleagues has never been warm, but it frosted over Wednesday night when the Texas conservative pulled a procedural stunt that forced Senate GOP leaders to cast a tough vote.

Like many of Washington’s feuds, this one stems from a purely symbolic vote. After the House authorized an increase in the federal debt ceiling without conditions, the bill went to the Democratic-controlled Senate, where its passage was preordained. The chamber’s top Republicans, Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, preferred to bring the bill to a vote with a simple majority, which would enable must-pass legislation to sneak through the Senate without GOP approval. But Cruz objected, which required the measure to garner 60 votes. The gambit forced McConnell and Cornyn, both of whom are up for re-election this year, to break the filibuster. The bill passed, as expected, and neither McConnell nor Cornyn voted for it.

But this rates as high drama in the Senate chamber, where passive aggression is its own form of art. The question is what consequence the stare-down may spur, either for Senate Republican leadership or their tormentor. 

For Cornyn, the impact is probably nil. Though he faces a Tea Party challenge in next month’s primary, and Texas is a conservative state where a debt-ceiling increase is about as popular as Barack Obama, it’s hard to imagine he has much to sweat about. Cornyn has yawning leads in the polls and a huge fundraising advantage. His most heralded competitor is running a campaign so bizarre that some local Republicans suspect it may be an elaborate debt-retirement scheme.

McConnell is a different story. The Republican Senate leader is squeezed between challengers on his right and left flank in a state where he’s not exactly a popular guy. His vote to advance the debt-limit bill gives fodder to Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin, whose central campaign theme is that he will be the conservative vote that McConnell sometimes isn’t. His supporters immediately touted Wednesday night’s vote as evidence of that claim. “McConnell sided with the Democrats and gave President Obama a blank check,” said Matt Hoskins of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which is backing Bevin. Yet it’s hard to imagine this has much impact in Kentucky, where any voters incensed by McConnell making a procedural vote on the debt limit are probably already committed to Bevin.

Ordinarily, getting boxed in by a freshman backbencher might be an occasion for McConnell, who runs his caucus with an iron grip, to exact retribution. But Cruz is tough to punish. He has no apparent interest in Senate seniority. He doesn’t need plum committee assignments. His Tea Party megaphone gives him national reach and fundraising firepower. And his power and popularity is rooted in the fact that he is despised by GOP elites. A public feud with the ultimate Washington insider would only enhance his stature with his grassroots base. If McConnell wants vengeance, he would be wise to keep his fingerprints off the weapon.