Cruz walks political tightrope on debt-ceiling deal

Cruz walks political tightrope on debt-ceiling deal

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzUp next in the culture wars: Adding women to the draft Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet 228 Republican lawmakers urge Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade MORE marked a political first on Thursday: Voting with Senate GOP leadership to raise the debt ceiling.

The move underscored the political tightrope the Texas Republican faced in a short-term proposal that linked help for recovery from Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Cruz’s home state last month, with a short-term debt-ceiling hike and government funding measure.

The package put Cruz between two unenviable decisions, both with political consequences for the conservative stalwart.

Voting against the hurricane help would have sparked a political firestorm for Cruz, providing fodder for Democrats and potential GOP primary opponents ahead of his 2018 reelection campaign. But voting for the deal went against conservative groups and GOP colleagues who launched an all-out-push to get Republicans to vote against the legislation. 

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“Beyond the politics of exploiting hurricane victims and potentially delaying much-needed disaster relief, the proposed combination is wrong on policy grounds,” Heritage Action said on Thursday.

But the group — which gives Cruz a 94 percent lifetime approval rating — added they thought it was “political malpractice” for leadership to force conservatives, particularly those from Texas, to vote on a package that included both a debt hike and Harvey aid.

Cruz has at times rankled his fellow Republicans with his willingness to use fights over raising the debt ceiling — once considered a routine vote — to try to get spending or entitlement cuts or protest the Affordable Care Act.

He hinted before the August recess that he believed conservatives should try to use the looming deadline to get concessions, calling it an “effective tool” for lawmakers who want to reduce spending.

"I hope we use all the tools available to us to do that," he told reporters.

And he previously voted against aid after Hurricane Sandy in 2013. Cruz, and other Republicans who voted “no,” argued it was because spending in the bill wasn’t tied to Sandy relief — though fact checkers have debunked that claim.

Cruz tried to walk a fine line on Thursday when he announced he would support Trump’s deal with Democrats, highlighting the hurricane recovery money directed toward his state while knocking the short-term extension of government funding and the debt ceiling.

“It is unfortunate that congressional leadership and the Administration chose to tie Harvey relief to short-term extensions to the CR and the debt ceiling,” he said. “I would have much preferred a clean Harvey relief bill — which would have passed both Houses nearly unanimously.”

Asked about the agreement by a gaggle of reporters as he headed into a closed-door GOP lunch, the Texas Republican noted only that he had released a statement.

Cruz was also one of only 10 Republicans who voted for a proposal from Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulUp next in the culture wars: Adding women to the draft The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators Only two people cited by TSA for mask violations have agreed to pay fine MORE (R-Ky.) that would have paid for the more than $15 billion in hurricane and disaster recovery with cuts from unspent foreign aid funding.

But he opposed a measure from Sen. Ben SasseBen SasseSasse calls China's Xi a 'coward' after Apple Daily arrest Defunct newspaper's senior editor arrested in Hong Kong Murkowski: Trump has 'threatened to do a lot' to those who stand up to him MORE (R-Neb.) that would have separated the hurricane money from the other fiscal fights while shrinking the recovery funding down to nearly $8 billion — the same amount that passed the House.

Both Paul and Sasse slammed the deal hashed out by Trump and congressional leadership.

“In Washington we have a disease, or a syndrome rather. I call it the dinosaur syndrome. Big hearts. Small brains,” Paul said. “It is a recurring problem year after year, bill after bill, day after day.”

Sasse offered more direct criticism, saying his colleagues were doing the “opposite of draining the swamp” by backing the deal supported by Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerManchin on reported boos at Democratic luncheon: 'I heard a lot of nos' Wisconsin GOP quietly prepares Ron Johnson backup plans Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE (D-N.Y.).

“Do your constituents know that Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerManchin on reported boos at Democratic luncheon: 'I heard a lot of nos' Wisconsin GOP quietly prepares Ron Johnson backup plans Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE, whose title is minority leader not majority, just made himself the most powerful man in America for the month of December? Chuck Schumer has made himself the key man in all negotiations in December,” he said.

The votes highlighted divisions among Republicans’ potential 2020 White House field, where several conservatives could be forced to fight for support among the party’s base.

Twenty-five Republicans, including Paul, supported Sasse’s proposal to separate the fights. Sasse, unlike Paul and Cruz, voted to pigeonhole the Kentucky Republican’s proposal to cover the recovery money with spending cuts.

Each of the three GOP senators, along with Sens. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonUp next in the culture wars: Adding women to the draft Chuck Todd is dead wrong: Liberal bias defines modern journalism Ex-Rep. Abby Finkenauer running for Senate in Iowa MORE (R-Ark.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate holds sleepy Saturday session as negotiators finalize infrastructure deal Break glass in case of emergency — but not for climate change Democrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins MORE (R-Fla.), are the subjects of early 2020 White House speculation. Each of the senators has publicly brushed off the idea that they’ll launch bids for the 2020 election.

Cotton, who voted for the agreement, explained his decision by highlighting the support for communities impacted by Hurricane Harvey.

“Hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans have just endured one of the biggest storms in our history. This package will provide them immediate relief. ... It will also give FEMA and the state of Texas the funding they need to pay the Arkansas national guardsmen who are supporting relief efforts there,” he said.

Rubio, whose state is on track to be devastated Hurricane Irma this weekend, missed the votes on Thursday. He said in a statement that he would have supported the deal "despite significant reservations."

Meanwhile, Democrats, including several potential 2020 contenders, unanimously supported the deal even though it didn't offer protections from deportation for immigrants brought illegally into the country as children. And Democratic leadership praised the outcome after the deal was announced, with Schumer calling the agreement a “happy ending.”

GOP leaders, asked about anger from conservatives, brushed off the narrative that the deal marked a pivot by Trump toward Democrats after months of rhetorical sparring between the president and his Republican counterparts in Congress.

“I read what you guys write, too. I don’t think there’s any basis to reach any particular conclusion other than [Trump] wanted to get that behind him,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on MORE (R-Texas) said after the vote. 

And Cruz got some cover for the votes from his home state.

The Senate agreement nearly doubled aid money, adding $7.4 billion in block grants. And it included a short-term extension of the National Flood Insurance Program, which was set to expire at the end of the month.

The Texas delegation also huddled ahead of the Senate vote, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, calling in to talk to lawmakers and tweeting support of the agreement after the vote.

“His message was when Texans, and the Texas delegation is unified, that there’s no stopping us. And so it was really a call to unity on behalf of the people hurting,” Cornyn said. “He got a very good response, and I think he’ll be very pleased.”