Sen. Ted Cruz has become a marked man in Washington, where his insistence that Republicans hold fast to defunding Obamacare — even if it means flirting with a government shutdown — has been derided from across the GOP political spectrum.
But outside of the city’s establishment, the Texas Republican and his allies in the defunding fight are heroes to tea party groups and conservative rank-and-file voters who say they have been waiting for leaders to pick a fight on an issue of principle.
Mr. Cruz appears to be headed for defeat in his call for Republicans to filibuster the spending bill, with more than enough GOP senators signaling they’ll join Democrats to head off a filibuster — particularly because they would be filibustering House Republicans’ own bill, and because they don’t want to be seen as responsible for a government shutdown, which would result if Congress doesn’t pass a stopgap spending bill by early next week.
But Mr. Cruz said he won’t go quietly.
“I intend to utilize every procedural means available to prevent Harry Reid from funding Obamacare,” he told reporters outside the Senate on Monday afternoon, fresh off another sparring match with the Nevada Democrat and Senate majority leader.
The two men eyed each other warily from the chamber floor as they guarded against parliamentary tricks. At one point, Mr. Cruz objected to Mr. Reid’s request to be allowed to transact some routine business confirming presidential nominees. Later in the day, Mr. Cruz relented and the nominees went through.
Late in the day, Mr. Reid set up a key Wednesday test vote in the showdown.
Michael McKenna, who runs GOP strategy firm MWR Strategies, said when judged by winning the health care fight, Mr. Cruz may lose. But Mr. McKenna said that’s not the goal.
“The strategy here has been directed at making Ted Cruz the No. 1 guy in the conservative world,” he said. “When you judge it on that metric, it’s been highly successful.”
The bill on the Senate floor, which passed the House on Friday, funds the government through mid-December, but prohibits any spending on the Affordable Care Act. However, thanks to parliamentary rules, it will take only a majority vote to strip out the Obamacare provisions.
That leaves Mr. Cruz in the confusing position of calling for a filibuster of the House Republicans’ bill. He tried to get around that, asking that any Obamacare amendment votes have to achieve a 60-vote threshold, but Mr. Reid shot down that proposal, saying that would set a precedent.
“What he said, in effect, is that he believes a bare majority of the Senate consisting only of Democrats should be able to force Obamacare funding on a straight party-line vote,” Mr. Cruz said. “I think that is a mistake.”
Mr. Cruz’s maneuverings, though, have baffled analysts who said he picked a doomed fight.
“I’m not sure he has a strategy. This seems to be sort of like Obama on Syria. It’s kind of improvising as you go along here,” said Michael D. Tanner, a Cato Institute senior fellow. He said Mr. Cruz will fall short in getting the votes to filibuster what amounts to his own bill.
His case was hurt early on by Republican leaders who said they wouldn’t countenance a government shutdown, removing the key threat behind a showdown with President Obama.
Mr. Tanner said there was a chance to fight for something more specific such as a one-year delay in the individual mandate requiring all Americans to obtain coverage, but there was never much likelihood Mr. Obama or Democrats were going to accept an end of the Affordable Care Act.
“The Republicans essentially gave up their opening bid early on and then sort of scrambled to try to throw this together at the end,” he said, adding that the outcome is “going to be very messy” for all sides.
But those fighting alongside Mr. Cruz said GOP leaders should listen to the voters who have rallied around the call to defund the health care law.
“What I think you’re seeing from folks is the frustration that Washington isn’t driving the agenda anymore. The folks outside Washington are driving the agenda,” said Dan Holler, communications director at Heritage Action for America. “Back in July, nobody expected Obamacare to be the big thing this fall. And now it’s the only thing. And that’s because lawmakers’ constituents rose up and demanded it.”
Mr. Holler said the shape of the debate is already a kind of victory because it’s focused on health care, not on dollars.
“The fight on the year-end spending bill has been on Obamacare. Harry Reid, Barack Obama, the appropriators, all wanted this fight to be on government spending levels — how high can we go, can we turn off the sequesters,” Mr. Holler said. “Because conservatives are playing offense on Obamacare, they weren’t put in a position where they had to play defense on spending.”
Still, Mr. McKenna said there is collateral damage from Mr. Cruz’s approach.
“What’s happened is he’s sucked all the oxygen out of the room for the last six months when we could have been talking about legitimate ways to fix it, or legitimate ways to postpone the individual mandate,” he said.
Mr. McKenna said major changes will have to wait until more of the law goes into effect and people begin to rebel against its consequences. The wait, he said, makes it “take a lot longer and be more difficult.”
The defunding fight has been painful for Republican leaders. In the House, they had to scrap their preferred strategy and pass a real defunding bill, demanded by their rank and file.
In the Senate, however, the parliamentary mess has given GOP leaders the ability to vote for defunding Obamacare while knowing they are likely to lose the fight.
Mr. Cruz is expected to be one of several senators exploring a bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, along with Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida.
Mr. Rubio made his own mark earlier this year, successfully helping push an immigration bill through the Senate, though wounding his own standing with Republican primary voters.
By contrast, Mr. Cruz, who appears poised to fail in his legislative effort, likely will be rewarded by GOP voters.
Mr. McKenna said the two senators share a link in their willingness to strike out on their own and defy party leaders.
“Neither one of these people believes they are in the United States Senate because they are in the Republican Party. And they are, in fact, right. The Republican Party opposed both of them. They are in the United States Senate despite the Republican Party,” the strategist said.
In an email Monday night to millions of supporters on the White House mailing list, President Obama’s senior adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, blamed congressional Republicans for being “reckless” in the budget showdown.
“Instead of doing their jobs, a few reckless Republicans in Congress are so obsessed with refighting old political battles over Obamacare that they’re threatening to shut down the government and stop paying the country’s bills,” Mr. Pfeiffer said. He asked supporters to “spread the word so that Americans know what’s going on.”
Staff writer Dave Boyer contributed to this article.