Ted Cruz and the Tea Party's dangerous game of chicken

The Republican Party is again in the grip of hard-line activists

Populist wrath: The Calgary-born Sen. Cruz is the Tea Party’s latest de facto leader

Less than a year after losing the White House amid a flurry of hand-wringing and strategizing about how to appeal to a broader swath of the American public, the Republican Party is once again in the grip of hardline activists.

And, once again, they are careening toward a potential shutdown of the federal government at the end of September and a possible default on government debt in mid-October if President Barack Obama does not abandon his signature program extending health insurance to millions of uncovered Americans.

The newest leader of the Tea Party activists is Calgary-born Ted Cruz—the 42-year-old son of Americans who worked in Alberta’s oil patch before moving on to Texas when Cruz was a child. The Princeton- and Harvard-law-educated Cruz was elected to the U.S. Senate last November, but is the latest politician seeking to ride populist conservative wrath toward a presidential bid. (Cruz has loudly announced plans to renounce his Canadian dual citizenship.)

Cruz is at the head of an effort on Capitol Hill to deny funding to the president’s health care law in exchange for authorizing the rest of the money the federal government to function beyond the end of this month. Under the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, Americans without health insurance are to begin enrolling in its plans beginning on Oct. 1—the same day money will run out for the federal government if Congress, which authorizes all government spending, cannot reach agreement. Cruz and his allies goaded the Republicans in the House of Representatives into a strategy that many in the party are calling reckless: they passed a bill that would authorize spending for government operations only if funding is cut off for the health-insurance plan. The bill then went to the Senate, where the Democratic majority was expected to remove the health care pro- vision this week and send a bill that would keep the entire government funded, including the health care law, back to the House for approval—thereby daring the Republicans to make good on their threats to shut down the entire federal government if a penny goes to “Obamacare.”

“We will not bow to Tea Party anarchists,” Senate majority leader Harry Reid said Monday, labelling Cruz and his allies “extremist Republicans” and “fanatics.”

Republican House Speaker John Boehner did not want the vote, but—concerned for his leadership position—gave in to the hard- liners. The influence of establishment party leaders over their caucus has weakened as several Republican lawmakers have lost their seats in recent years in nomination challenges at the hands of ideological purists, raising fears among remaining Republican lawmakers of challenges from the right. One of the Hill’s leading deal-makers, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell helped finesse an 11th-hour bipartisan compromise to avoid a government shutdown in 2011. But now McConnell is facing a primary challenge from a Tea Party candidate in his home state of Kentucky and is keeping his distance from the latest dispute.

Cruz and his Tea Party allies made defunding the health care law into an ideological litmus test—one that would be remembered at primary election time.
Jim DeMint, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, made a two-week tour of the country this summer, telling town hall after town hall that Obama-
care must be stopped at all costs—and threatening that Republican lawmakers who didn’t go along would be “replaced.” Other groups have run ads against individual Republican senators who have opposed defunding the program, and have said they will use the vote to rate lawmakers in their annual report card to supporters.

Sarah Palin called on the Senate to put itself on “Cruz control.” She wrote on the website Breitbart: “A little reminder to Republican senators up for re-election in 2014: moose season ends soon, allowing more time on one’s hands. So, we’ll be watching your votes very carefully this week.”

Even if Congress agrees to fund government operations, a bigger crisis looms: Republicans are threatening not to raise the federal debt ceiling in mid-October—potentially defaulting on government bonds with unknowable consequences for the global economy—if Obama does not agree to at least delay the health care law. They have a laundry list of other demands—including approval of the  needs proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands. The President has said he won’t negotiate when it comes to the debt ceiling because it would be irresponsible for Congress not to pay the nation’s debts. The last time House Republicans flirted with holding the line on the debt ceiling, the nation’s credit rating was lowered, raising the cost to taxpayers of future financing. Indeed, Moody’s Investors Service has warned that a failure to raise the debt ceiling this time would again “roil financial markets.”

Plenty of Republicans fear the latest gambit is self-defeating. The American public does not want a shutdown. A recent poll suggests that 59 per cent of Americans oppose shutting down the government as a means to defund the health care plan, while only 19 per cent support it, according to a CNBC All-America Economic Survey.

“If we end up with a shutdown, it is going to be kamikaze, and the Republicans will end up sushi,” warned conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer.

Republican strategist Karl Rove said a government shutdown “would strengthen the President while alienating independents.

It’s an ill-conceived tactic and Republicans should reject it.” The conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page accused Cruz of being motivated by “fundraising lists or getting face time on cable TV.” Fox News host Chris Wallace disclosed over the weekend that high-level Republicans had offered him damaging information on Cruz. Some Republicans fear that the hardball tactics are overshadowing real concerns about the health care law. For example, union leaders recently warned that some employers will cut back full-time workers to fewer than 30 hours per week to avoid providing insurance. Several large retailers have announced plans to drop insurance for part-time employees, and others are dropping coverage for spouses of their workers, citing higher fees in the new law. But House Republicans have refused to entertain proposals from Democrats to fix problems with the complex law.

Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, warned party members not to let their hardball tactics steal the headlines away from problems with the health care law. “Obamacare is going over like a lead balloon in the economy,” Graham told Fox News. “The only way we can screw it up is to make it about us.”