By Alexander Bolton - 10-21-13 06:00 AM ET
Photo by Greg Nash
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is defiant. [WATCH VIDEO]
The Texas Republican refuses to back off the idea of using another showdown over government funding to delay ObamaCare, even as Republican leaders are ready to move on.
Cruz’s insistence comes in the face of deep criticism from fellow Senate Republicans.
“I would do anything and I will continue to do anything I can to stop the train wreck that is ObamaCare,” Cruz told ABC News when asked whether he would push the country to the brink of another shutdown.
“I don’t work for the party bosses in Washington,” he added on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday.
His recent bruising battles with the GOP leadership have had one clear positive for the freshman Republican. He has cemented his role as the Tea Party’s standard-bearer.
“Ted Cruz had a very good last few weeks for himself because his whole goal is to build a national brand with the Tea Party segment of the Republican electorate and he certainly did that,” said John Ullyot, a Republican strategist and longtime Senate aide.
In a matter of weeks, Cruz has positioned himself as a formidable potential candidate for president in 2016, eclipsing Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who was considered the Senate’s brightest conservative star at the start of the year.
Reporters on Capitol Hill often mob Cruz, who has served less than a year in the Senate. Television bookers want him on their shows. He has a huge megaphone, and that is a problem for GOP leaders in Congress.
Cruz also has an army of followers. Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), a vocal critic of the 42-year-old senator, gets many calls from Cruz allies. Some of the comments have been “vile,” King said recently.
Ullyot said Cruz’s goal is to emerge as the leading conservative alternative to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
“Rubio’s big problem is he needed to become the candidate of the more conservative wing of the party and Ted Cruz has supplanted Rubio,” the strategist said.
But even as Cruz has amplified his influence with the conservative base, some Republican strategists warn he could end up destroying his party’s ability to win national elections.
“If it came down to Ted Cruz and Chris Christie, I bet you three quarters of the Republican Party would be supporting Chris Christie,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who worked for the McCain-Palin ticket in 2008.
“He probably hurt himself in terms of 2016 electability,” O’Connell added.
There is no mistaking the extent to which Cruz divides opinion, even within his party.
Former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush (R) said in an interview that aired on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday that Cruz ought to “have a little bit of self-restraint.”
He has become increasingly isolated in the Republican conference. When GOP colleagues excoriated Cruz at a private Oct. 9 meeting, no one in the room stood up to defend him, according to a source.
Another source with knowledge of the meeting said the group of angry Republican senators also lambasted Cruz’s ally, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). When Cruz walked in 20 minutes late, they focused their fire on the Texas freshman.
Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Dan Coats (Ind.), Ron Johnson (Wis.) and other Republicans ripped Cruz in a private meeting for giving political ammunition to future conservative primary challengers.
Several senators believe Cruz’s strategy was motivated by one thing: his presidential ambitions.
Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) told The Hill last month that blocking a government stopgap spending measure to demand the defunding of ObamaCare was good for White House aspirations, but not a realistic plan.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told Univision in an interview that aired Sunday: “In an effort to help him run for president, he has done some stuff that’s really damaging to our country.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) viewed the shutdown as a debacle for his party. In an interview with The Hill, he compared it to getting kicked by a mule and vowed to steer the party in another direction.
McConnell said the GOP’s objective should be “to fight again on another day for things we believe are important, which is keeping taxes low and continuing to try to reduce spending.”
Tea Party conservatives are already criticizing this strategy, arguing that ObamaCare is a bigger drag on the economy, and thus a better target, than Medicare and Social Security, which remain popular.
“Some people are saying, ‘Let’s pivot to entitlement cuts. Strategically, we can’t win ObamaCare.’ But stopping ObamaCare is pro-growth and people oppose the law by 2-to-1. How is it strategically smart to pivot to entitlement cuts, which doesn’t help with jobs and polls terribly?” said one Senate GOP aide.
These conflicting views set up another clash between McConnell and Cruz over tactics.
Cruz views the recent fight over the shutdown as only the first battle in a longer war.
He thinks his hard-nosed strategy can achieve future policy goals aside from defunding the Affordable Care Act.
“This was going to be a multi-stage extended battle,” he told Fox News host Sean Hannity. “But we’ve also seen a model that I think is the model going forward to defeat ObamaCare, to bring back jobs [and] economic growth, to abolish the IRS, to rein in out of control spending.”
Shortly before the Senate voted Wednesday to fund the government and raise the debt limit, Cruz took to the floor to blame his GOP colleagues for undermining the effort to repeal at least part of ObamaCare.
He made the same assertion in blunter language on Fox News.
“The House Republicans marched into battle. They exercised tremendous leadership, tremendous courage,” he said. “It should have been the Senate Republicans riding like the cavalry to support them.
“Instead, unfortunately, the Senate Republicans were divided and became basically an air force dive-bombing the House Republicans and conservatives, and once that happened there was no way to hold the line,” he added.
Cruz and his aides have given no real indication that he will change his tactics in the near future.
“It’s premature to declare any tactic in or out. Next steps will be thought through, what the leverage points are and how they can be used successfully. But the focus remains mitigating the harm ObamaCare is doing to the economy and working people,” said Sean Rushton, Cruz’s spokesman.
It is, however, an open question whether Cruz can command the same following from House Republican conservatives.
Without Tea Party allies in the House putting pressure on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Cruz would have much less leverage.
“How many members of Congress are going to get positive feedback from all of this?” said Ron Bonjean, a former Senate and House Republican leadership aide. “The key here is what House Republicans are going to hear back home and whether or not they would stand by Cruz once again after going through a failed strategy that was offered by him.”
Beyond Capitol Hill, the rhetoric directed against Cruz has turned white-hot at times.
The U.S. Capitol Police told The Hill on Friday that it is investigating several threats a self-identified military veteran made against Cruz on Twitter.