McConnell’s first big challenge: Keeping a lid on Ted Cruz

Republicans have won the Senate majority, but can leaders control their own rank and file?

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, waves to the crowd at a Republican victory party Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, waves to the crowd at a Republican victory party Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

WASHINGTON — Within minutes of polls closing in Kentucky, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell was declared the victor of a race some doubted he could win and many more hoped he would lose.

Like most recent congressional leaders, McConnell — who in 2009 declared that his party’s No. 1 goal would be to defeat President Barack Obama — had become a powerful symbol of his party and a major target for Democrats. His win in Kentucky Tuesday night was the first step toward realizing his career-long dream of becoming Senate majority leader. Outlining his potential approach toward leading the Senate, McConnell delivered what rang at first blush as a wildly optimistic view.

“Just because we have a two-party system, doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict,” McConnell said in a lengthy victory speech in Louisville hours after polls closed.

A divided, partisan Washington, however, is only part of the problem for Congress. The more pressing problem for a potential Majority Leader McConnell than the gulf between the parties is the divisions within his own. It’s a reality that House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio has grappled with for four years, with mixed success.

For McConnell and Senate Republicans, governing in the majority could prove to be more difficult than winning it was.

The first test of McConnell’s ability to manage intraparty divisions could come as soon as lawmakers return to Washington later this month for a lame-duck session. Congress will have to fund the government (again) to stave off a shutdown, approve a sweeping Department of Defense authorization bill, potentially approve an Iran sanctions measure, and also could clear Eric Holder’s replacement as U.S. attorney general.

In all of those cases, McConnell’s interests and the interests of the Republican Party may not align with those of individual members, several of whom are mulling 2016 presidential election bids. At least four are flirting with a run for the White House: Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rob Portman of Ohio.

Cruz especially could prove to be a troublesome force for McConnell, as the Texas conservative has built his national profile on bucking his own leadership as well as attacking the president and Democrats. Cruz was the intellectual architect of the October 2013 government shutdown that largely was opposed by the GOP leadership. Despite their warnings — and those of even more establishment colleagues — Cruz filibustered a spending bill unless it defunded Obama’s health care law. Though public opinion of the GOP tanked — dropping to historic lows — Cruz appeared unmoved. The Republican grass roots roared their approval, and nothing that Cruz or his aides have said since suggests he plans to drop his hardline approach. In fact, Cruz has conspicuously refused to endorse McConnell for majority leader.

GOP Senate aides across the ideological spectrum told Yahoo News that some of the chamber’s most conservative members have expressed a paranoia that a newly minted Majority Leader McConnell could try to strike deals with Democrats in the lame-duck session on issues such as a longer-term spending agreement — rather than having to find a coalition in the next Congress to approve spending measures more palatable to the Cruz contingent.

Some veteran Republican senators, however, seemed determined to ignore the coming confrontation and expressed optimism about the impact they could have in the new Republican-controlled Senate.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who may assume the helm of the Senate Finance Committee, said he had “high hopes” that the Senate could take up tax reform, trade promotion authority and a repeal of the medical device tax. Hatch, who would be in the line of succession to the presidency as the new president pro tem, said that Republicans could work with Democrats to pass an immigration reform bill.

Portman looked forward to offering a clearer contrast between the GOP and Obama that would allow Republicans to offer their own solutions rather than just opposing whatever Democrats in the Senate did.

“The Republican brand is damaged at this point in part because Democrats have been relentless on this ‘Party of No’ message, and the only way to counter that is to pass legislation, have an agenda, let people know what we’re for,” Portman said. “And it’s very difficult to do that without having a majority.”

Having control of the Senate, Portman said, “allows us to have a positive, proactive Republican message.”

But both lawmakers were overlooking some of the realities they will now face. A Senate majority of 50-plus a few seats is not a supermajority of 60, and so Republicans will be very limited in how much they can actually pass out of the Senate without Democratic support.

“The simple fact of the filibuster means that getting over 50 doesn't mean sending the president all kinds of bills. It means getting them killed in Senate votes rather than getting them killed by the Senate's unwillingness to vote,” said Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs magazine. “That's a meaningful difference, but there's a lot of talk about forcing confrontations with the president that has overlooked that.”

This is where the Cruz factor comes into play again. For all of Hatch’s talk of passing an immigration bill, the hard right of the Republican Party — represented and epitomized by the Texas senator — has become even more determined to stop an immigration compromise in the past several months. And if Obama takes the unilateral executive action he has been promising, it will — as Boehner has warned — “poison the well.”

Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation are itching for Cruz to use the government funding fight during the lame duck to wage a fight over immigration. Democrats want a long-term spending patch. Republicans want something in the middle. The right flank wants something really short-term so they can come back to the spending fight early next year and start withholding funding for implementation of whatever the president has decided to do.

“Nobody ran a campaign saying, ‘I’m willing to work with President Obama on legalizing millions of illegal immigrants,'” said a Heritage Foundation official. “The spending fight is really where they can have that fight.”

Hatch, asked what he would say if he sat down with Cruz over dinner to discuss the upcoming majority, said, “Sen. Cruz is a very bright guy, and he’s very dedicated to his principles and his beliefs.

“I would say, ‘Look, Ted, we’ve got to work together and we’ve also got to have Democratic support to do things that need to be done for the country,’” Hatch said. Then he gave a senatorial jab in the ribs to Cruz. “If he is going to run for president someday, he is going to need some accomplishments to run on, and now is a good time to start getting those."

Cruz may lack some of the support inside Congress that he had when he filibustered against Obamacare a year ago. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a key sidekick in that fight, has remade himself as more of an ideas guy and seems less inclined to launch broadsides against leadership. Paul and Cruz have gone from uneasy allies to unspoken rivals as they jockey for position ahead of 2016. And Boehner aides say that Cruz’s support in the House has shrunk.

But as long as conservative activists and primary voters in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire continue to express approval for Cruz’s confrontational approach, he’s likely to take that route. And it will be McConnell’s task to limit Cruz’s ability to take others with him and to make sure he remains a caucus of one.