Texas Senator Ted Cruz has developed a reputation as a firebrand. Cruz has made refusal to compromise a trademark of his career in Congress and has often had strong words for fellow Republicans who disagreed with him on strategy. Now a new behind-the-scenes report by the Wall Street Journal reports that Cruz may be turning over a new leaf.
The Journal reports that Cruz began working quietly with moderate Republicans to find a consensus on health care reform that has a realistic chance of becoming law. Cruz was instrumental in forming a working group of 13 Senators that had its origin in a February steak dinner with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). The group includes Republicans concerned about the effect of an outright repeal of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and pre-existing conditions rules such as Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Cory Gardner (R-Col.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah). Cruz has reportedly been working with House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mike Meadows (R-N.C.) for the past month.
Senators on both sides of the aisle expressed surprise at Cruz’s new strategy. “It’s a ‘you live long enough, anything can happen’ moment,” said Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
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“It would be a first for Sen. Cruz,” noted Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
The GOP’s 52-vote majority in the Senate means that Republicans can lose no more than two votes and still be able to pass an Obamacare replacement. A defection of two Republicans would require Vice President Mike Pence to cast the tie-breaking vote. At least five Republican moderates are considered to be doubtful in their support for the American Health Care Act.
The working group is expected to be vital in bringing various Republican factions in the Senate together to forge a compromise that can replace as much of Obamacare as possible. Cruz’s participation and support may help bring other conservatives such as Mike Lee and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on board with the Republican reform effort.
In the past, Cruz has had difficulty with consensus building and passing legislation. He is perhaps most well-known for his role in the 2013 government shutdown and attempt to defund Obamacare. With Republicans outnumbered by Democrats, the shutdown failed to halt the implementation of President Obama’s namesake health bill. Cruz was also known for failed attempts to prevent an increase in the debt ceiling and compromise spending bills under the Obama Administration.
Cruz may be realizing that the role of majority party senator is very different from that of one who serves in the opposition. When a party is in power, it is expected to deliver results in the form of advancing its legislative agenda. It is not enough to just say “no” when your party controls both houses of Congress and the White House.
“They’re giving him a leadership role and he’s going to have to make the most of if it,” said Rick Tyler, who served with Cruz’s presidential campaign. “If he can pull it off it’s a huge victory. But it’s fraught with danger.”
The upside for Cruz would be an enormous amount of prestige and notoriety if he shows an ability to build a coalition to pass a landmark reform bill. The boost for Cruz could potentially reach beyond his normal conservative base and lay the groundwork for a second presidential campaign in 2020.
Without the support of Cruz and other Senate conservatives, a reform effort would necessarily have to reach across the aisle to Senate Democrats. That would mean fewer conservative reforms in a watered-down bill. The alternative would be to delay reform until after the 2018 elections or until health insurance markets become so dysfunctional that the public demands action.
A potential pitfall would be alienating the conservative base whose expectations are for a full repeal of Obamacare. Even though Republicans do not have the votes for a full repeal, Mr. Cruz has helped stoke those expectations over the past few years. Many conservatives view anything short of full repeal to be a betrayal. Cruz must help the party overcome that view and sell the reform bill to the conservative base.
Health care reform gives Ted Cruz an opportunity to break out of his stereotypical role as a roadblock in the Senate. If Cruz can prove that he has the ability reach out and build a working majority with senators who don’t share his views, it would represent a major milestone in his career make him an even greater force in the Senate.
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