Ted Cruz Just Made Life Miserable for Republican Leaders Once Again

The Senate passed a measure to raise the debt ceiling, but not before two Republican leaders had to cast perilous votes.
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Senators Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Way back in early February, we heard that Ted Cruz had decided to start playing nice with his fellow Republicans.

What a difference 10 days make.

After Speaker John Boehner moved Tuesday to pass a "clean" debt-ceiling increase, relying on Democratic votes in the House, it looked like the increase could have an easy path through the Democratic-controlled Senate. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said the nation would hit the debt limit at the end of the month, and with Congress on recess until February 25, Wednesday's vote was almost do or die.

But the freshman senator from Texas had other ideas, as he often does. Instead of consenting to pass the increase with a bare majority, Cruz announced he'd filibuster, requiring a 60-vote threshold to invoke cloture on the measure. Perhaps sardonically, he told Politico he didn't think that would annoy his GOP colleagues.

You can see where this is going. When the cloture vote came up Wednesday afternoon in the Senate, Democrats voted for it en masse, but the measure still needed a few votes to pass. After a tense hour, and with the nation's full faith and credit on the line, it fell to Republican Senators Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn to, well, pick your cliché: swallow the bitter pill, take one for the team, walk the plank. Once it was clear there were enough Republican votes to invoke cloture, several of their GOP colleagues joined them and voted for cloture. The final vote was 67-31, not even close. A short time later, the Senate passed the increase 55-43, in a vote that required only a simple majority.

McConnell and Cornyn are part of the Republican leadership—the minority leader and whip, respectively—so it made sense for them to take the hit. On the other hand, both are facing primary challenges this year from opponents who have deemed them insufficiently conservative. They're both still strong favorites to win their races: Cornyn's challenger, Representative Steve Stockman, is a carnival of campaign chaos and catastrophe; this week, he denied jail time that he had previously acknowledged. McConnell's likely Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, has been running even or ahead of him in polls, but he's still got a hefty lead over Republican challenger Matt Bevin. But this vote is great news for both Bevin and Stockman, who suddenly have new, potent fodder for Republican primaries. If they haven't dropped the thank-you notes in the mail yet, they're surely coming soon. (The first McConnell condemnation, from a group backing Bevin, landed in my inbox as I wrote this paragraph.)

Cruz's procedural highjinks aside, the important takeaway is still that Congress managed to raise the debt ceiling without complete breakdown. Unlike the last time it was raised, in October, there was no government shutdown; Republicans never put together a serious bid to demand anything in return for the increase. If this episode sets a precedent, it could end the string of contentious debt-ceiling fights of the last few years. It's hard to argue those feuds have been much good for Republicans, Democrats, or the country.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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