Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas used a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday to rail against the party establishment, calling himself a “disruptive app” such as Uber that would upend the political system. Delighting the assembled conservative shock troops, Cruz castigated the Republican leadership for selling out its principles by separating a funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security from a measure that would roll back President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration.
“Unfortunately, Republican leadership is cutting a deal with Harry Reid and the Democrats to give in on executive amnesty,” Cruz told the applauding CPAC crowd of the looming votes to fund the agency, which will shut down Saturday if there is no action from Congress.
And yet just the day before, Cruz took a little-remarked-on action that seemed to belie his combative rhetoric. Talking to reporters on Capitol Hill, Cruz indicated he would not stop an agreement between Democratic and Republican leaders to proceed with a clean bill to fund the DHS and avoid a shutdown — the same agreement he lambasted in his CPAC speech. For the firebrand legislator, best known for his role in the politically disastrous 2013 government shutdown, it was an intriguing signal that he may be softening his famously hard-line approach.
Cruz’s position on the underlying legislation — that it’s a bad deal for conservatives who want to stop President Obama’s executive actions on immigration — remains unchanged. But Cruz apparently was openly accepting that he could not permanently block passage of the bill. In a smashmouth political culture in which legislators use every parliamentary tactic to gain advantage and seize the spotlight, the simple act of bowing to reality was noticeable.
And although the apparent shift didn’t seem to register with the hundreds of tea party supporters who gushed over Cruz at CPAC on Thursday, it could be significant for newly minted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who needs to keep his caucus together to prove Republicans can govern.
“Nothing is to be gained by a delay of 12 hours or 24 hours or 36 hours,” Cruz said matter-of-factly on Wednesday, explaining his decision not to use the parliamentary delaying tactics he had so reflexively deployed in the past.
No one’s ready to declare that Cruz has gone wobbly; and to be sure, the DHS fight is only the first of several legislative battles with which the new Republican majority must grapple, including funding the government again and raising the debt ceiling.
Still, it was a striking turnaround from past behavior when Cruz obstinately refused to back down even if his legislative insurgencies were doomed from the start. In the 2013 shutdown and the near shutdown at the end of 2014, Cruz stood on his principles, although he lost his substantive policy fights: defunding health care law and killing the immigration policy being debated now.
Cruz famously held summits with House conservatives, in Capitol Hill offices and the nearby Mexican restaurant Tortilla Coast, lining them up behind him on a strategy to hold back their votes on spending bills and block unanimous consent agreements to shorten timelines to pass those bills.
On Tuesday, House conservative Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas even tweeted
he was ready to meet Cruz at Tortilla Coast at noon for lunch to repeat the whole show.
But Cruz didn’t show up. After disclosing on Wednesday that he wouldn’t block the time agreement to avert a DHS shutdown, Senate conservatives who previously have sided with him, Mike Lee of Utah and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said they, too, were ready to allow votes to proceed.
“Senator Lee is fine yielding back time but intends to offer some amendments to address the executive amnesty issue,” a Lee spokesperson said.
All of this raises the question, why the change in style from Cruz and his allies? (A spokesperson for Cruz declined to comment.)
One possible explanation for the softer, kinder approach is that Cruz is mulling a presidential run, which might provide an incentive to be more of a team player than a bomb thrower. Moreover, with Republicans now in the majority, it’s harder to blame Democrats for blocking legislation — the way Cruz has done repeatedly in interviews and on social media over the DHS spending bill — while also obstructing those same votes.
Cruz spent two years being a pain in McConnell’s side when Republicans were in the minority. Now that the GOP has the majority, speeches such as the one on Thursday, in which Cruz puts down McConnell in front of the conservative base, may be a little easier to swallow if he’s playing well back on Capitol Hill.
In other words, at least from the leadership’s perspective, Cruz can talk like a disruptive app, as long as he’s acting a little more like a cog in a machine.