WASHINGTON – Texas Sen. Ted Cruz sat with eyes glued to his mobile device as the chaos he provoked ensnared his Republican leaders on the Senate floor.
Legislation to raise the nation’s borrowing authority with no strings attached was short of the 60 votes it needed to advance — a threshold Cruz demanded — and without a few conversions, Republicans would be blamed for its failure. The stock market was watching.
After what seemed like an eternity, a grim-faced Sen. Mitch McConnell, the party leader who faces a tea party challenge back home, finally voted yes. An equally grim-faced Sen. John Cornyn, the party’s No. 2 leader and Cruz’s Texas colleague, changed his vote from no to yes.
Cruz showed no mercy in exposing Republican leaders to widespread criticism from their primary challengers over a procedural vote on the debt limit after their pronouncements about the imperative of spending cuts. It could have been a simple 50-vote requirement, with Democrats delivering the votes to lift the debt limit, but Cruz insisted.
Pressed after the vote about what he made his leaders do, Cruz was unapologetic.
“It should have been a very easy vote,” he told reporters. “In my view, every Senate Republican should have stood together.” He added that the verdict on McConnell “is ultimately a decision … for the voters in Kentucky.”
McConnell’s GOP challenger, Matt Bevin, seized on McConnell’s vote to criticize him. “Kentucky and America can literally no longer afford such financially reckless behaviour from the likes of Mitch McConnell,” Bevin said in a statement.
The Madison Project, a conservative group backing Bevin, accused McConnell of giving President Barack Obama “a blank check.”
It wasn’t the first time Cruz, a tea party favourite, had created massive headaches for Republicans. Last fall, he and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, precipitated the 16-day government shutdown with their demand that Obama gut his 3-year-old health care law.
The quest had the backing of the Senate Conservatives Fund and other outside groups that raised millions during the process — and spent a good chunk of it to boost GOP challengers such as Bevin and Chris McDaniel, who is running against Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran.
This week, the conservative groups Heritage Action and Club for Growth urged Senate Republicans to oppose lifting the debt limit. Determined to avoid brinkmanship, the House voted for a debt limit with no strings attache. After Wednesday’s drama, the Senate followed suit.
Republicans are intent on avoiding the drama of market-rattling fiscal fights, especially in an election year in which the party sees a legitimate shot at adding Senate control to their majority in the House. They want Obama’s unpopular health care law to be the main focus in the months leading up to the November election.
Cruz is unwilling to step back from the fight, even if it undercuts his party’s strategy.
“Today was a classic victory for Washington establishment interests, and the people who lost today are the American people,” Cruz said.
Republican Sens. Bob Corker and John McCain praised the courage of McConnell and Cornyn, who avoided days of uncertainty over whether the nation might default.
“People will see McConnell and Cornyn voted in a responsible way,” Corker said.
They avoided public criticism of Cruz.
“I respect Sen. Cruz’s rights to exercise his rights as a senator,” said McCain, who had rallied other Republicans to switch their votes.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairman of the Budget Committee, said she was glad Republican were responsible, adding, “It was painful to watch.”
Associated Press writer Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report.