After four years of taunting and torturing fellow Republicans, Ted Cruz is shedding his just-say-no persona in the Senate for a new identity: Team player. And this is no idle tryout.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — a man Cruz once derided as a liar and an ally of Democrats — is counting on the Texan to help navigate an Obamacare repeal bill through the Senate with virtually no margin for error. As a trusted voice of the conservative wing of the GOP and conduit to the House Freedom Caucus, Cruz is fast emerging as a pivotal player in the Republican bid to do away with the landmark Democratic health care law.
It’s a stunning transformation for a senator who was widely blamed for causing the 2013 government shutdown in an attempt to defund Obamacare. But after receiving so much blowback for that and many other episodes, there’s nary a Cruz critic in the Senate Republican Conference nowadays.
“He’s trying to get a result. And as smart as he is, he can be a real force in making that happen,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs a key Senate health care committee and is close to McConnell. “If we’re able to come to a result in the Republican caucus, I’ll be glad to give him a lot of the credit.”
Cruz’s work on health care has been uncharacteristically low profile so far. It began with a private dinner in mid-February at the upscale D.C. steakhouse Capital Grille with the more compromise-minded Alexander, who once chided Cruz for calling McConnell a liar on the Senate floor by noting that one thing “you learn in Kindergarten is to respect one another.”
Alexander and Cruz agreed to assemble a group of GOP senators to prepare for the eventuality that the House would send them a health care bill riddled with flaws that could not pass the Senate as written.
McConnell formalized the group by adding chairmen and members of leadership. The group lacks any true moderates and suggests that McConnell believes the path to passage is through the conservative wing of his caucus.
The exclusion of the likes of Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) has privately irked some senators because of their months of work on an alternative plan and Collins’ role chairing the Senate Aging Committee. And the 13-senator working group initially contained no women, an oversight that prompted a cascade of criticism from Democrats and liberal pundits.
But when it comes to passing a new health care law, Republicans believe the inclusion of Cruz and his close ally, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), could pay critical dividends by building support among conservative groups and the House Freedom Caucus. The gap between more centrist Senate Republicans and more conservative House GOP members is seen as one of the biggest obstacles to writing a new law.
“One of the challenges when the Obamacare bill was in the House, was that early on was that the different parts of the party were not talking to each other,” Cruz said in an interview in his office. “We wanted to ensure that the process from the outset was collaborative and inclusive.”
Collaborative and inclusive are not typically words associated with Cruz. Is he evolving into a more pragmatic brand of conservative?
In a word, yes. Now that President Barack Obama is out of office, Cruz said his mission in the Senate is no longer to be the “loyal opposition.”
“Different circumstances call for different approaches,” said Cruz, who is gearing up to run for a second term next year in a closely watched race. “Now our job is to deliver on the promises. And that’s a markedly different role than trying to prevent harmful policies from an imperial president.”
Cruz’s leading role has shocked some of his colleagues. Many Republicans never could have imagined the bomb-throwing senator organizing and implementing a relatively ideologically diverse working group aimed at passing a bill, not stopping one.
“It was an ingenious stroke,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said of the appointment.
The group that Cruz helped develop is, in some ways, a substitute for the traditional committee process. Republicans don’t believe they can push an Obamacare repeal bill through the committees, particularly the health panel chaired by Alexander. Rather than take the chance that repeal gets tied up in a Senate committee, leaders prefer to work out the party’s issues within a broad working group and then go directly to the floor.
“We have skin in the game,” Cruz said. “The players across the board in the Senate want to get to yes. We recognize that we have an historic opportunity.”
Still, there’s concern among some more centrist senators that the end-product could appeal too much to Cruz and not enough to the dozen or so Republican senators who have grave concerns about slashing Medicaid and removing protections for preexisting conditions. The group does include more centrist Republicans like Rob Portman of Ohio, but the overall makeup is still an issue.
“That is a reasonable question to ask given the composition overall of the group,” Collins said.
GOP leaders say there is no degree of exclusivity to the working group because it will report regularly to the entire caucus. But its makeup raises questions about who McConnell is willing to lose on the health care vote. Clearly he believes Lee and Cruz are crucial; but some GOP sources said there are deep doubts among senators that Collins or Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will ever vote for anything the Senate GOP comes up with.
Collins and Paul insist they are in play.
“I’ve told them there is a compromise: I am for 100 percent repeal of Obamacare. But I will compromise on the percentage of repeal,” Paul said. “80 percent repeal, I’d vote for that. But I’m not willing to vote to replace Obamacare with a new federal program.”
Though GOP leaders believe by getting Cruz involved they are minimizing the possibility that Cruz will later demolish their repeal efforts, the Texas firebrand isn’t on the same page about everything.
The Senate’s repeal effort is subject to strict budgetary restraints that will disallow, in the view of most senators, attempts to make it a true repeal of Obamacare. Cruz wants to go as big as possible, and if Senate rules prohibit his idea, he believes Vice President Mike Pence should simply overrule the parliamentarian.
“The parliamentarian merely advises, the vice president decides,” Cruz said. “Mike Pence is the ultimate decider.”
That opinion is not popular among Republicans, according to senators and aides. They believe it would be tantamount to killing the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold.
But on almost every other front, Republicans say, Cruz is being highly productive.
“He is playing well with others,” Alexander said. “Presidential races … are transforming events.”