Without any fanfare, 166 House Republicans voted to fund Obamacare on Wednesday.
The next day, 17 Republican senators did the same thing.
The belief that voting to fund the government means you are endorsing every single program the government funds is a new phenomenon in American politics, popularized by one man — Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX).
The junior senator from Texas entered the upper house of Congress when the Republican Party had hit rock bottom, after losing the presidency twice to Barack Obama and blowing its second consecutive chance to regain control of the Senate. Things were so bad the party quickly raised the debt limit with no substantial demands, then went as far as speaking publicly about “rebranding” and attempting to appeal to “minorities.”
Senator Cruz wasn’t about to let that happen.
He seized on the fear of a House Speaker who nearly lost his gavel in a coup and a Senate Minority Leader who was facing a Tea Party primary challenge that could cost him his career — right as the party faced a third chance to retake the majority.
With the help of outside groups like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, Cruz toured the country announcing his plan to shut down the government over Obamacare, then blame the president for the shutdown.
The idea of holding the government hostage wasn’t unique to Cruz. House Republicans had done that with the debt limit in 2011. What was new was the idea that anyone who eventually agreed to keep the government open without forcing a newly re-elected president to give up his signature accomplishment was a RINO, a liberal and Neville Chamberlain in Munich all rolled into one. He helped embolden the party’s base, which forced Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) to turn against immigration reform — his one legislative achievement and the GOP’s only significant act of outreach in years to minorities who aren’t George Zimmerman.
Cruz’s plot won over the House GOP’s so-called “suicide caucus,” and Republicans stood together for 17 days without funding the government — then it crumbled within a few hours.
By the end of the shutdown, Republicans had reached new levels of unpopularity and briefly seemed in danger of losing their gift-wrapped-by-gerrymandering House majority. Luckily for the GOP, the briefly disastrous rollout of the Obamacare online exchanges wiped the shutdown’s hangover from the news. However, the unpopularity lingered, putting the party in a fundraising slump it still hasn’t broken out of.
So when it came time to vote on a two-year budget agreement negotiated by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Ted Cruz and the outside groups that champion him warned Republicans that they’d better not vote for it or they’re gonna get it, somehow, some way. You just watch!
The budget passed easily, but before it came time to fill in the actual numbers and fund that budget, Cruz demanded a vote to defund Obamacare. The senator’s spokesTwitterer summed up what happened:
Cruz asked for a vote to defund Obamacare and fund military pensions. Denied. Couldn’t even get a VOTE on it.
— Amanda Carpenter (@amandacarpenter) January 16, 2014
LOL. How the mighty have fallen.
Of course, the omnibus bill that passed both houses of Congress is nothing to cheer about. It’s typical Washington D.C. sausage-making, with a side of “please don’t tell me how much fecal matter is in this.”
“It blocks the Navy from retiring seven cruisers and two amphibious ships,” explained The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank. “It gave the Pentagon $950 million more than it wanted for one class of attack submarines. But the measure denied the Pentagon $8 million it sought to study more base closures.”
As the defense budget grows, some military personnel now have to contribute more to their pensions. The law also lets unemployment benefits expire, punishing those struggling the most, costing the economy billions and keeping 200,000 Americans out of work.
But the compromise keeps government open and restores a small measure of consumer faith in the economy. It also funds Obamacare with slight concessions, as Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) pointed out when “thanking” his counterpart in the House, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), who helped put together the bill, but voted against it in hopes of keeping his dream of winning Georgia’s GOP nomination for a soon-to-be-vacant U.S. Senate seat.
There aren’t enough metaphors to describe how badly Cruz overreached and overplayed his hand without having to invoke premature ejaculation. His problem isn’t just that his strategy was a complete and utter failure that only benefited his presidential ambitions, or that he has helped expose the limited influence of the outside groups.
Ted Cruz’s biggest problem is that the Tea Party movement, that along with sympathetic evangelicals makes up half of the GOP base, has stopped striking fear in the hearts of mainstream Republicans. By successfully co-opting Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) to help his campaign (in exchange for promises for help in the future), Mitch McConnell leads his primary challenger by 22 percent.
Cruz will have another chance to get his party to sign on for more hostage taking with the debt limit. And he could completely destabilize the GOP and alienate the party’s leadership forever by campaigning for McConnell’s opponent, Matt Bevin.
Yes, that would be the Matt Bevin who recently said, “This idea of us being bomb throwers, being zealots who, ‘It’s my way or the highway’ — that’s craziness. Government is about negotiation, government is about compromise.”
What Ted Cruz has revealed is America’s fetish for compromise and bipartisanship, which always polls well, even for Tea Party challengers running to the right of Mitch McConnell. It’s the mentality that leads to the Senate threatening to sabotage peace negotiations with Iran. But it’s also the mindset that keeps government open and helping the millions who benefit from a functional Washington D.C.
President Obama said he hoped his second term would break the GOP’s fever. Instead, that fever blistered into the shape of Ted Cruz.
Neither the blister nor the waning fever is going away. Republicans will still sabotage Obamacare at every opportunity, even as the end of tax breaks for the rich and economic growth have led to record deficit shrinkage. They saw their obstruction taken to new extremes and found out that that it just doesn’t work.
Cruz wanted to destroy Obamacare but his attempts instead led to the first two-year budget of Obama’s presidency and renewed hope that some real immigration reform is possible. This will help make his case against the GOP leadership as he continues his 2016 campaign but rather than emboldening the base, Cruz is just a sad reminder of how futile their efforts have become.
UPDATE: Now it seems Republicans are also giving up on their 48th attempt to repeal Obamacare. Thanks, Ted Cruz.
Photo: jbouie via Flickr