In a Capitol Hill hallway leading to the Senate floor on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had just finished telling reporters that no Republican would delay a vote to fund the government. But then Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, carrying a stack of papers under his arm, strolled past him toward the door of the chamber.
Cruz turned his head toward the gaggle of reporters around Reid and walked through the doors onto the floor, where he stopped at his desk on the far-right corner of the room.
“I intend to speak about defunding Obamacare until I am unable to stand,” he declared.
With his colleague Utah Sen. Mike Lee on his left and an aide on his right, Cruz began what is expected to be an hourslong speech that could last late into the night about the importance of gutting the federal health care law that President Barack Obama signed in 2010.
Cruz’s move has all the looks of an old-fashioned filibuster, but it’s technically just a very long speech that will draw attention and focus to his cause. In this case, he will be delaying a vote on a bill to fund the government that, when the Democrat-controlled Senate is finished with it, will include funding for the health care law, but he won't derail it. According to Reid's spokesman Adam Jentleson, Cruz "negotiated the terms" of his speech with the Democratic majority leader before taking the floor.
Congress must approve a bill that sets federal spending rates by Oct. 1, or the government will shut down. For months, Cruz and a small group of conservative Republicans have called on their party to refuse to fund the government unless spending on the president's signature domestic policy win is stripped, even if it means shutting down the government.
Among Republicans in the upper chamber, there aren't many takers.
At about the same time that Cruz began his speech, Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who doesn’t support the Texas lawmaker's filibuster-esque strategy, voiced clear disapproval with the delay tactic. Without Cruz’s objection, Senate Republicans could have given up their time to debate the funding bill, which would have sped up the voting process.
Because Cruz chose to use up most of that time, the Senate won’t be able to return its version of the funding bill back to the House until Sunday night — just a day before the shutdown deadline — eliminating the leverage House Republicans might have had in the debate.
“It would be to the advantage to our colleagues in the House who are in the majority to shorten the process, and if the majority leader were to ask us to shorten the process, I would not object,” McConnell told reporters in the first moments of Cruz’s speech. “I don’t know who else in the conference may feel differently. But I do know that if the House doesn’t get what we send over until Monday, they’re in a pretty tough spot.”
When House lawmakers return to Capitol Hill that day, they will be asked to vote on what the Senate has sent them: a government spending bill that includes funding for Obamacare. They will have a choice to whether pass the bill as is, or change it and send it back to the Senate and risk a shutdown.
If the bar for success is actually defunding Obamacare, Cruz's effort is almost sure to fail. Senate Democrats and the president have made clear they will not approve any legislation that defunds the law, even if it means bringing the nation to the brink of a shutdown.
But that’s really not the point.
By making himself into a stalwart on the issue who is at odds with members of his own party on the approach, Cruz is setting himself up to be a hero of the party’s conservative base who want lawmakers to eliminate the health care law at all costs.
To that end, Cruz’s exercise will be a success.