The Senate convened for a tedious weekend session on Saturday, bitterly divided over a $1.1 trillion spending bill that features, it seems, something for everyone to hate. But members on both sides of the aisle united late in the evening, brought together by the efforts of one member to kill the bill entirely and set the government on the path to another shutdown: Ted Cruz.
In the end, the omnibus measure passed, the government stayed open, and the historically unproductive 113th Congress limped a bit closer to its conclusion. And the long-standing divide between Cruz and his own party's leaders was thrown into sharper relief.
Just more than a year after he helped to orchestrate a two-week shutdown of the federal government, the Texas Republican this week slowed the Senate to a crawl.
After months of wrangling between both parties in the House and Senate over the spending bill, Republican leaders believed Friday that they had a deal to move forward on legislation that was far from perfect, but the best they could do with the Democrats still in charge.
But shortly after Minority Leader Mitch McConnell left the chamber on Friday for the weekend—or so he thought—Cruz went rogue. The Republican, who is considered a potential presidential candidate in 2016, strode into the Senate chamber and blew open the agreement. Cruz, accompanied by Sen. Mike Lee, forced members to spend the weekend idly passing dozens of unnecessary procedural bills, all the while preventing a vote on the spending bill.
Ultimately, leadership prevailed. After several hours of tedious procedural votes, McConnell and Majority Leader Harry Reid came together on a deal Saturday evening to pass the omnibus spending bill, while Cruz would have his time to speak. With the support of both McConnell and Reid, the omnibus bill passed 56-40. Cruz's measure to declare the bill unconstitutional failed 22-74.
It wasn't the first time that Cruz has turned his back on leadership's wishes, and it's unlikely to be the last. But Saturday's passage of the omnibus spending bill shows the power that McConnell, the soon-to-be majority leader, still holds over his conference. Cruz may have won the short game, but with the government funded through September under a deal he personally negotiated, McConnell won the long.
Democrats also faced their own internal struggle. Members of the majority balked at the spending package over the inclusion of provisions altering the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, lifting caps on donations to political parties, and altering protections for worker pensions. The loudest voices came from the left, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. But when it became clear Saturday night that the omnibus bill would pass with a slim majority, many members in the party's moderate wing joined in voting against the bill. Ultimately, 21 Democrats voted against the measure along with independent Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The $1.1 trillion spending bill, which passed the House under a similarly frantic process Thursday night, now heads to President Obama's desk, where he is expected to sign it. The bill delays, for now, the confrontation with the Obama administration over immigration that Cruz was pushing for. But the conservative Texan will likely get his chance in February, when the funding for the Department of Homeland Security is set to expire and when, a majority of Republicans say, they'll join him.
The argument between Cruz and party leaders was not over their desire to hit back at the White House over immigration, but when and how.
Many Republicans, including leadership, disagreed with Cruz's push to address the immigration matter immediately. They argued they should handle what to do about Obama's executive order when they have the majority in January. "Fight when we can win and get something accomplished," said Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota. "That's what we're trying to set up for next year when we have the majority in the Senate."
Saturday began with many disgruntled GOP senators streaming in around noon, some of whom railed against Cruz's strategy. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said procedural motions should be used with an end goal in sight, and that he didn't "see an end goal other than irritating a lot of people."
Cruz's office sought to make the case that his motion was substantive and worth the effort. "Democrats have never been asked to go on record supporting or opposing Obama's amnesty. Tonight, bc of Ted Cruz, they will," Cruz spokeswoman Amanda Carpenter tweeted Saturday, adding: "And, keep in mind, the Cruz point of order has teeth. It's not an empty show vote. Essential for holding GOP's feet to the fire next year."
But Democrats scoffed at Cruz's motion, as the party leadership offered up a "fact check" memo calling it essentially a procedural move that "would not stop President Obama's executive action on immigration. In fact, it would reject the omnibus spending bill if successful. Meanwhile the executive action would stay in place."
In the end, just half of Senate Republicans voted in favor of Cruz's motion, while both McConnell and his whip, Sen. John Cornyn, voted against it.
"There was nothing unconstitutional about the appropriation bill," Cornyn said, "and so people like me voted no even though we're as outraged as anybody about the president's executive action."
After the vote, Cruz declined to castigate the many Republicans who voiced their disagreement with him, or to paint them as pro-amnesty. "We had 22 Republicans stand up against the unconstitutional actions, but I think that number vastly understates the commitment of the Republican Conference," he said. "The division among Republicans is I think at this point a procedural division" rather than an ideological one.
Cruz said he welcomed the "opportunity to take Republican leaders at their word" in the next Congress that they will continue to fight Obama's executive order.
Democrats gloated that Cruz's move to make senators stick around through Saturday enabled them to pass through many Obama nominees they otherwise wouldn't have had time to take up. "Senator Cruz's stunt got two fewer votes than the twenty-four Obama nominees he helped Senate Democrats advance tonight," Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said in an email.
More than a few Republicans agreed. "If this hadn't happened, they probably wouldn't have gotten as many nominees through," said Sen. John McCain. "The result was unfortunate, because more people who should have undergone greater scrutiny, in my view, were able to ease through the process."
Sen. Lindsey Graham's denunciation of the tactic was more forceful. "At the end of the day, nothing changed on the executive order, and they got nominees we would have successfully blocked. I haven't seen Harry smile this much in a long time," he said. "I think most Republicans feel like Christmas came early for Democrats."
Cruz dismissed that characterization, saying Reid would have forced through the nominees at one point or another. "He intended to do this regardless," Cruz said. "It didn't change the dynamic a lot."¦ If Reid had not done so today, he would have done so Monday or Tuesday."
Cruz's allies on the right rushed to his aid. Conservative blogger Erick Erickson complained that Republican leaders were spinning this "more nominees" argument and "pro-amnesty Republican pundits and press have bought it hook, line, and sinker."
But before Cruz's objection, many of those nominations would have in fact come up for a vote on Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, perhaps bleeding into Thursday—a full week after the Senate was initially scheduled to recess for the holidays. Reid had worried that he would lose members to their vacations long before he finished the list of nominees. "What Sen. Cruz did was very helpful," said a senior Democratic aide. "We could conceivably start passing nominees by close of business Monday."
That, Democrats announced just before midnight Saturday, is the plan. Members will return to the Capitol on Monday evening to begin confirming nominees, leaving the remainder of their business for the year in limbo for now.
The Senate still has to take up a package extending tax breaks that expired at the end of last year and the reauthorization of the terrorism risk insurance program. Many members believe that the latter legislation is doomed. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who was not present for votes on Saturday because he was visiting his doctor back home, has a hold on the bill and many Democrats oppose the legislation over additional alterations to the Dodd-Frank law.
This article was updated throughout the day Saturday.