WASHINGTON — When Ted Cruz mounted his filibuster of Obamacare in September 2013, he was joined on the Senate floor by a host of other Republican senators eager to align themselves with a tea party favorite reaching a new level of populist power.
One of those senators was Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican. At the time, Paul was seen as a likely 2016 presidential primary contender, but the idea of a Cruz presidential bid still seemed a bit far-fetched and premature. After all, the first-term Texas Republican had been sworn in to serve in his first-ever elected office only eight months earlier.
But barely over a year later, it looks increasingly likely that both men will vie for the Republican presidential nomination and launch campaigns this winter.
As Cruz games out his strategy for the new Congress, which will be controlled by his own party for the first time in his career as a senator, he and Paul are now clearly rivals, as opposed to the uneasy allies they were a year ago.
One thing's for sure: Don't expect a repeat of their 2013 alliance. An aide to Paul said that if Cruz launches another crusade against Obamacare next year, Paul will want little to do with it.
"He won't be in the middle of that fight," the Paul aide told me last week. "I don't think he's going to get all wrapped around the axle. He's supportive of the idea of repealing Obamacare, but he's not going to be the tip of the spear."
Paul is happy to let Cruz take that duty, and Cruz is eager to have it. Each man is staking out his own lane.
Where Cruz appeals more narrowly to the hard-core conservative base, Paul believes he has enough support among activists and the grassroots in Iowa and South Carolina to be able to safely make appeals to voter blocs that have traditionally supported Democrats, such as younger voters and minorities. And he's confident enough in his position to have already reached across the aisle to partner with Democrats on shared policy goals.
And unlike Cruz, Paul is well-liked in the Senate, both by Republicans and — perhaps surprisingly, considering some of his views — by Democrats.
One aide working for the Senate Democratic leadership raved about how much Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., like Paul personally.
The Democratic aide compared Paul to "an early-day John McCain" — a comparison that's ironic, given Paul's clashes with the Arizona senator, and that may also perhaps be intended to undermine Paul's appeal to the Republican base.
"A lot of the senior politicians around here see Rand as someone they recall as like themselves when they got here: at first very idealistic, then you evolve and start to make friends on the other side," the Democratic aide said.
Paul is expected to focus much of his attention in the Senate in the near term on criminal justice reform and tax repatriation issues.
Cruz, meanwhile, is likely to pick a fight with presumptive Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over a spending bill to fund the government during the lame-duck session of Congress that begins this month. Conservatives want the spending bill to be a short-term patch so that if President Barack Obama takes executive action on immigration, they have an opportunity early next year to withhold funding for his measure when the continuing resolution expires and requires another extension.
But the looming fight that Paul will steer clear of, his aide said, is a potential showdown between Cruz and McConnell next year over Obamacare. The arena for that would be the coming debate over how Republicans will make use of what is known as the "reconciliation" process.
If Republicans can pass a budget in both the House and Senate next year (which is tougher than some may think), they can use "reconciliation" to pass whatever they want through the Senate. Reconciliation is a legislative anomaly — an add-on to a budget that can be passed only once a year — that requires only a 51-vote majority, rather than the filibuster-proof 60-vote total that most legislation is subject to. Ironically, reconciliation is the same process that Democrats used in 2010 to jam the health care bill through Congress after Sen. Teddy Kennedy's death deprived them of a filibuster-proof 60-vote supermajority.
What's unclear is whether the incoming majority leader, McConnell, will want to use reconciliation to pass a repeal of Obamacare to send it to the president's desk, forcing him to veto it. The debate is already taking shape, months out, over what the GOP should do.
Cruz himself said in a recent op-ed that Republicans "should pass repeal legislation (forcing an Obama veto)." And the only way McConnell can pass repeal legislation that even gets to Obama's desk for a veto is through reconciliation.
McConnell, for his part, has shown interest in using reconciliation to repeal the individual mandate in Obamacare. The mandate was ruled a tax by the Supreme Court in 2012, when the court upheld the law, making it clearly subject to reconciliation, which is supposed to deal only with spending and budgetary matters. After that ruling, McConnell told aides to prepare for using reconciliation against the mandate if the GOP took the Senate that fall.
"Figure out how to repeal this through reconciliation. I want to do this," he told aides in late 2012.
Republicans fell short in that election, and Obama won a second term. McConnell's openness to the idea then was also probably influenced by the possibility that Mitt Romney, a Republican, would be president and would likely sign a repeal of the mandate into law. Obama's continued presence in the Oval Office may have changed his calculus. The president made clear this week in a news conference that he would veto any attempt to repeal the mandate.
In addition, many in the GOP establishment will not want to hand the president an opportunity to mock them for trying, again, to repeal a law they know he is going to uphold with his veto pen. Others may want to force Obama to veto legislation other than Obamacare that they think more clearly highlights the contrast between the two parties.
It's not clear where McConnell will come down in this debate. He has not tipped his hand. But many expect him to hold a vote on Obamacare in the Senate, soon after Republicans take control, that allows conservatives to debate the issue and vote for repeal, but which gets the issue out of the way as early in the two-year presidential election cycle as possible. It's not likely that enough Democrats would vote with Republicans to send this repeal legislation to the president.
If McConnell takes this route and decides that this is as much of a public stand on Obamacare as he is willing to take, that is likely to set up a showdown in the spring between Cruz and the establishment over reconciliation. And it will also present a test for Paul, in which he has to navigate between the two sides.
Update: Brian Darling, the senior communications director for Paul, sent Yahoo News a comment in response to this story, clarifying the senator's point of view.
"Senator Paul is committed one hundred percent to a full repeal of ObamaCare and will lead the fight to repeal it," Darling wrote in an email. "Strategy is important. It is important that Republicans put forth a short and long term strategy to fully repeal ObamaCare that has a chance of working."