How Ted Cruz could single-handedly cause the U.S. to default

The Week
Cruz is clothed in immense power.
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Cruz is clothed in immense power.

Back in September, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) compared Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Tea Party Republicans to Thelma and Louise for threatening a government shutdown.

Today, it's obvious that Cruz isn't afraid of driving off cliffs, even if he takes the country with him. But Reid may want to come up with a more dramatic metaphor once he's seen the latest weapon in Cruz's arsenal: The ability to single-handedly delay a possible bipartisan Senate deal that would temporarily fund the government and raise the debt ceiling right before the United States is expected to hit its borrowing limit on Thursday.

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Not that Cruz is the only one who can slow things down. House Republicans are reportedly planning to counter a reported Senate proposal with their own, which could delay things past Oct. 17 and cause the U.S. to default on its debt obligations.

Still, he could prevent a Senate plan from even reaching the House until Friday. As Bloomberg Businessweek's Joshua Green explains, the Senate normally requires 30 hours of post-cloture debate, unless lawmakers vote unanimously to waive it. Cruz could gum up the works by refusing to play ball with Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and forcing two periods of debate — pushing the United States past the debt ceiling.

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"If a determined band of nut jobs wants to take down the global economy, they could do it," Jim Manley, a former top staffer for Reid, tells Green. "Under Senate rules, we are past the point of no return — there’s not anything Reid or McConnell could do about it."

Cruz hasn't committed to blocking a Senate deal, telling Politico that he would "need to see what the details are" before making a decision. The political risks of unilateral action are obvious. It's one thing to demand that your fellow Republicans stand up against ObamaCare; it's another to be seen as the lone politician responsible for causing the United States to default in a still struggling economy.

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Of course, he could decide that delaying a debt ceiling hike by a few days wouldn't be so bad, writes Slate's Matthew Yglesias:

Everyone's level of certainty about this has to be pretty low, but I'm of the view that even if we were pushed slightly beyond the X-Date for reasons of legislative procedure that nothing disastrous would happen. A fair amount of damage has already been done to economic confidence, and the incremental amount of additional damage that Cruz could do with pure stalling tactics is (relatively) low. [Slate]

In that scenario, Cruz — who claims his private polls say Republicans will be rewarded by voters for "standing strong" during the shutdown — would have little to lose by delaying a Senate deal until Friday.

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That's still a lot of risk for one potential presidential candidate to take on, which could explain his Monday night pow-wow with 15 to 20 House Republicans at Tex-Mex joint Tortilla Coast, where, according to Roll Call, they reportedly discussed strategy over how to respond to the proposed Senate deal.

If the House resists the a bipartisan Senate deal and takes the blame for default, Cruz could support Republicans from the sidelines, letting him bolster his Tea Party bona fides without all of the backlash.

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That, ultimately, seems like the politically savvy thing to do. We'll find out soon enough if Cruz feels like driving off any more cliffs.

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