On Friday, Ted Cruz called the leader of his party a liar on the Senate floor. On Sunday, Cruz’s fellow Republicans responded by abandoning him in dramatic fashion.
Cruz has turned to the tried-and-true method of using his perch in the Senate to draw attention to himself in recent days, as his presidential campaign struggles to gain traction. But unlike colleagues such as Rand Paul or Marco Rubio, the Texas Tea Partier hasn’t limited himself to the typical Senate headline-grabbing moves—a lengthy filibuster-type speech, for example, or a dogged push for legislation. No, the Cruz style is to attack the institution itself, its norms and conventions, and in particular, its precious decorum.
From a purely political perspective, it’s not a bad move. Congress is never popular, and accusing a polarizing legislative leader like Mitch McConnell of lying is not the same as, say, belittling the war record of John McCain and suggesting it was his fault the Vietcong captured and tortured him for seven years, as Donald Trump recently did. (Nor is it as offensive as Mike Huckabee’s invocation of the most wretched imagery of the Holocaust to protest the Iran nuclear deal.) The Senate may have been designed as the “cooling saucer” of American government, but no one prizes its glacial pace or its Treehouse Club rules and traditions nearly as much as the senators themselves.
“Squabbling and sanctimony may be tolerated in other venues—or perhaps on the campaign trail—but they have no place among colleagues in the United States Senate,” Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the longest-serving Republican, said in a floor speech at the opening of an unusual Sunday session. In the best passive-aggressive tradition of the Senate, Hatch did not mention Cruz by name, but it was obvious to all who he was talking about.
The admonition followed Cruz’s outburst on Friday, when he said McConnell told Republicans a “flat-out lie” about his intentions to allow supporters to revive the expired charter of the Export-Import Bank—a lending agency targeted by conservatives—as part of an unrelated highway bill. McConnell on Sunday denied making a “special deal,” but he largely left his defense to a handful of other senior Republicans who went after Cruz. Among those standing with McConnell was Cruz’s own Texas colleague, John Cornyn, who said he was “mistaken” in calling out the majority leader.
To no one’s surprise, Cruz refused to back down. He insisted that he had not violated the Senate’s sacred decorum. “I do not believe speaking the truth is anything other than in the very best tradition of the United States Senate,” Cruz told reporters, according to CNN.
Yet the rhetorical barbs were only part of the story on Sunday. Cruz next turned to the Senate’s arcane procedural rules to try to get his way. In a bid to appease conservatives upset over the Ex-Im Bank amendment, McConnell had announced Friday that the Senate would also vote on a full repeal of Obamacare. Cruz had denounced this offer as “an empty show vote,” and on that point, he was exactly right. Under the rules devised by McConnell, the amendment repealing the healthcare law would be subject to a 60-vote threshold, thereby ensuring its failure, given that none of the 45 Democrats would ever support repeal.
Instead of fighting on Obamacare, Cruz tried to rally Republicans around an amendment blocking any relaxation of Iran sanctions until the regime in Tehran releases American prisoners. But Republicans ignored Cruz. He couldn’t even get his colleagues to second his motion for an initial vote on Iran; the effort was turned aside by voice vote.
In Cruz’s maneuver, Republicans saw something much more dangerous than a simple political vote on Iran: They saw someone trying to subvert the long-held order of the Senate for his own personal ambitions. “It would create chaos in the Senate,” warned Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, himself a former failed presidential candidate. It wasn’t much consolation to Cruz, but Republicans blocked similar bids by Senator Mike Lee to get a vote on defunding Planned Parenthood and repealing Obamacare by a simple majority of 51 votes. (Roll Call has a good explanation of the procedure.)
Ted Cruz lost every which way on Sunday. The Senate voted to revive the Ex-Im Bank over his protests, the Obamacare repeal vote fell predictably short, and the failure of his procedural gambit revealed that not only does Cruz lack allies in Washington, he lacks friends as well.
But those failures may be precisely what he needed to revive his presidential bid. Whereas on Friday he was attacking McConnell, by Sunday afternoon he was attacking the entire “Washington Cartel”—recasting a handful of bland, cautious senators in their 60s and 70s as, perhaps, a band of brazen, drug-dealing warlords. Cruz is trying to persuade voters that he’s just the man to take on Washington’s political establishment, and on Sunday, a parade of senators professing their grave disappointment inadvertently bolstered his cause.