WASHINGTON (AP) — Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz' all-night talkathon to dismantle President Barack Obama's health care law surpassed the 21-hour mark Wednesday with a harsh reality looming — a test vote the tea party conservative was sure to lose.
As Cruz' speaking time was nearing its end, he offered to skip the initial vote and shorten debate on the underlying stopgap spending bill that's required to avert a government shutdown after midnight on Monday. The Senate's top Democrat said the vote would go ahead as planned.
Since Tuesday afternoon, Cruz — with occasional remarks by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and other GOP conservatives — has controlled the Senate floor and railed against Obamacare. At 10:41 a.m. EDT Wednesday, Cruz and his allies reached the 20-hour mark, the fourth-longest Senate speech since precise record-keeping began in 1900.
That exceeded March's 12-hour, 52-minute speech by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., like Cruz a tea party lawmaker and potential 2016 presidential contender, and filibusters by such Senate icons as Huey Long of Louisiana and Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
With no food or restroom breaks, his tie finally loosened, Cruz kept pushing on to a predetermined adjournment of the Senate at noon. Cruz was helped by eight of his conservative allies who gave him brief respites by asking lengthy questions as permitted under Senate rules, though he was required to remain on his feet.
Cruz said he has learned that defying party leaders is "survivable," adding, "Ultimately, it is liberating" and that his long evening involved "sometimes some pain, sometimes fatigue."
But he added, "You know what? There's far more pain in rolling over. ... Far more pain in not standing up for principle."
Republican leaders and several rank-and-file GOP lawmakers had opposed Cruz's time-consuming effort with the end of the fiscal year looming. They fear that Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans won't have enough time to respond to the Senate's eventual action.
Two financial deadlines loom — keeping the government operating after Oct. 1 and raising the nation's borrowing authority. In a letter to Congress on Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said the government will have exhausted its borrowing authority by Oct. 17, leaving the United States with just $30 billion cash on hand to pay its bills.
That's a slightly worse financial position than Treasury predicted last month and it adds to the pressure on Congress to increase the government's borrowing cap to avert a first-ever U.S. default on its obligations.
Determined to pressure the Democrats, Republicans have raised the possibility of adding a one-year delay to the individual mandate of the health care law to any legislation to raise the borrowing authority.
Paul, who has questioned Cruz's tactics, gave the admittedly tired Texan a respite Wednesday morning by joining the debate and criticizing Obamacare. But in a reflection of the limited GOP support for Cruz' effort, no members of the Senate leadership came to the Texan's aid. Cruz did, however, get help through the wee hours of the morning from Lee.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., downplayed the significance of Cruz's speech after arriving at the Capitol Wednesday morning.
"He raised some money with the tea party folks," Reid said. "That's what it's all about."
The House-passed measure is required to prevent a government shutdown after midnight Monday and contains a tea party-backed provision to "defund" implementation of what's come to be known as "Obamacare". Cruz is opposed to moving ahead on it under debate terms choreographed by Democrats to defeat the Obamacare provision.
The mechanics of advancing the bill were overshadowed by Cruz's speech, which included a reading of Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" to his daughters back home in Texas.
"When Americans tried it, they discovered they did not like green eggs and ham and they did not like Obamacare either," Cruz said. "They did not like Obamacare in a box, with a fox, in a house or with a mouse. It is not working."
Senate rules are working against Cruz, who also has angered many GOP colleagues who complain privately that the freshman has set impossible expectations at the expense of other Republicans. Some of Cruz's leading allies include organizations like the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth that frequently donate money to conservatives challenging more moderate Republicans in primaries.
At issue is a temporary spending bill required to keep the government fully open after the Oct. 1 start of the new budget year. Hard-charging conservatives like Cruz see the measure as an opportunity to use a must-pass measure to try to derail Obama's signature health care law.
Under pressure from Cruz and tea party activists, House GOP leaders added the anti-Obamacare language to the funding measure despite fears it could spark a partial government shutdown that could hurt Republicans in the run-up to midterm elections next year — just as GOP-driven government shutdowns in 1995-96 help revive the political fortunes of President Bill Clinton.
"I just don't believe anybody benefits from shutting the government down, and certainly Republicans don't," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "We learned that in 1995."
Cruz took the floor at 2:41 p.m. Tuesday, vowing to speak until he's "no longer able to stand." Wearing black athletic shoes, he filled the time in a largely empty chamber, criticizing the law and comparing the fight to the battle against the Nazis. He talked about the Revolutionary War, the Washington ruling class and his Cuban-born father who worked as a cook.
Missing from the debate were top Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Cruz's home-state GOP colleague John Cornyn, who say that on a second vote later this week, they will support ending Cruz's effort to derail the funding bill. That vote is crucial because it would allow top Reid of Nevada to kill the Obamacare provision on a simple majority, instead of the 60 votes often needed for victory.
Democrats control the chamber with 54 votes.
"I think we'd all be hard-pressed to explain why we were opposed to a bill that we're in favor of," McConnell told reporters Tuesday. "And invoking cloture on a bill that defunds Obamacare ... strikes me as a no-brainer."
The overnight debate included some diversions.
Lee discussed a childhood accident in which his foot was run over by a car driven by his father and spoke of his longing to be a pirate. Cruz recalled his first Christmas dinner with his future wife's vegetarian parents, which he described as "just like any other Christmas dinner except the entree never comes."
As the sun rose, Cruz was helped by another tea party favorite and possible rival for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination: Sen. Marco Rubio. The Florida lawmaker spoke for over an hour about the damage he said Obamacare is doing to the economy, as Cruz — who must remain in the chamber and standing to retain control of the debate — strolled in a nearby aisle and occasionally leaned against desks.
Despite his tenacity, it seemed Cruz would not surpass the longest Senate speech on record, a 24-hour, 18-minute filibuster by South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond against the civil rights act in 1957.
Associated Press reporters Alan Fram and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.