Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellStudy: Trump tops recent GOP presidents in signing bills in first 100 days Senate passes stopgap funding bill to avert shutdown Let’s never talk about a government shutdown — ever again MORE (R-Ky.) and Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzKasich finds it hard to rule out 2020 Trump in campaign mode at NRA convention Trump’s hands are tied on 9th Circuit MORE (R-Texas) are competing for influence among the Senate’s 12 Republican freshmen, with the outcome potentially shaping the agenda for 2015 and beyond.
Cruz has reached out to freshman Republicans, whom he helped in last year’s elections, in hopes they will join his effort to pressure Republican leaders to pursue what he calls a “bold agenda.”
Cruz said he has targeted that message to the new freshman class, which comprises more than a fifth of the GOP’s 54-member majority.
“What I have encouraged everyone of them to do is to urge all of us to honor our commitments. What I’ve urged everyone of them to do is answer questions in January the same way you would have answered them in October on the campaign trail,” he said.
Outside groups, such as the Senate Conservatives Fund have pushed a similar message. They want Senate Republicans to follow through on their rhetoric from the campaign trail by making forceful pushes to repeal ObamaCare and defund the president’s executive order stopping deportations of illegal immigrants.
McConnell, for his part, has consistently told colleagues — freshmen and more seasoned members alike — that the only way they can have an impact is by getting legislation to President Obama’s desk. That means pushing proposals on jobs and the economy that can win Democratic support.
“In every meeting, whether it’s with freshmen or others, McConnell’s message has been consistent. The only way we’re going to be relevant is by getting legislation to the president’s desk. That’s the best card we have,” said a GOP senator, who requested anonymity to discuss private meetings.
McConnell met with freshman Republicans shortly after Election Day, when he posed with them for a photo-op in his stately Capitol suite.
He might face the same challenges that Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection MORE (R-Ohio) has had during his four years leading the House GOP majority. BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection MORE has faced down several conservative rebellions, most recently on Tuesday, when 25 Republicans voted to oust him as Speaker.
A senior Republican leadership aide argued that there is no difference in vision between Cruz and McConnell, noting that the GOP leader has repeatedly promised a vote to repeal ObamaCare. McConnell also supports stopping Obama’s executive order on deportations.
Cruz has also voiced support for getting economic bills designed to promote jobs growth to Obama’s desk.
“I hope we take up and pass one piece of pro-growth legislation after another, after another, after another and we put them on the president’s desk,” he said Tuesday.
But while McConnell and Cruz might share the same policy goals, they differ on tactics. Cruz is much more willing to use dramatic measures to achieve his aims, as he did in 2013, when he provoked a 16-day government shutdown in an attempt to stop the implementation of ObamaCare.
Many conservative activists, who form the core of Cruz’s national support, won’t be satisfied with just one Senate vote to repeal the healthcare law, which is certain to fail because of a Democratic filibuster. They want congressional leaders to use every tool at their disposal, including a special budgetary procedure known as reconciliation, which allows the Senate to pass legislation with a simple majority vote.
Last month, Cruz questioned whether the Republican leadership was fully committed to stopping Obama’s immigration order.
“When our leaders say as a commitment we will fight and we will stop President Obama’s illegal amnesty, I take them at their word,” he said on the Senate floor. “The American people may not be quite so trusting as I am, because they’ve seen far too many members of Congress say one thing and do another.
“We will learn soon enough if those statements are genuine and sincere,” he said, sending a shot across the leadership’s bow.
One Republican senator, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about his colleagues, said he did not think Cruz would gain much traction among the freshmen.
“I look at the freshmen, and I don’t see a lot of Ted Cruzes,” the lawmaker said, adding that Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst (R) is a potential “wild card.”
The differences between Cruz and McConnell over how aggressively to use their leverage could come to the fore next month, when a short-term law funding the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) expires.
Cruz suggested Wednesday that if the department shuts down because the president vetoed a funding bill that included language halting his executive order, Obama would bear responsibility.
“I think we should fund DHS, but at the same time we should exercise the constitutional checks and balances and the power of the purse to rein in the president’s abuse of power,” he said.
When asked if it would be worth shutting down the Homeland Security Department in response to a veto, Cruz said, “that is an excellent question for you to ask the president.”
“He should not veto funding for DHS, particularly if he has those concerns.”
Other Republican senators have sought out freshmen to press their pet agendas.
Incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn McCainPoliticians absent from Thompson Reuters brunch McCain downplays threat of pre-emptive strike against North Korea McCain plan gains momentum amid North Korea threats MORE (R-Ariz.), for example, has urged them to support ending the mandated defense spending cuts known as sequestration.
“Given our slim margin, they’re going to be extremely important,” Sen. Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeTrudeau, Trump speak for second night about US-Canada trade Trump says he may break up 9th Circuit Court after rulings go against him Trump administration weighing order to withdraw from NAFTA MORE (R-Ariz.) said of the freshmen. “They wield a lot of power.”