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Fools or heroes? Republicans divided on Cruz, Lee

October 16, 2013

WASHINGTON (AP) — A bipartisan compromise to avoid a financial default and end the U.S. government shutdown cast an uncomfortable spotlight on the two hardcore conservative senators who precipitated the crises with their quest to gut President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah are facing the wrath of Republicans leaders who repeatedly had warned them against their quixotic efforts. But those party leaders are taking little pleasure in saying “I-told-you-so.” The final deal hardly nicked the law known as “Obamacare,” while the shutdown and near default left the Republican Party reeling.

“Our numbers have gone down. Obamacare’s somehow mysteriously have gone up. And other than that, this has been great,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, with a heavy dose of sarcasm. “The way we’re behaving and the path we’ve taken in the last couple of weeks leads to a marginalized party in the eyes of the American people.”

Cruz, who at one point during the standoff staged a 21-hour marathon speech against the health law, was unapologetic.

“This battle will continue to provide real relief for the millions of Americans who are hurting, who right now still don’t have a voice in the United States Senate,” said Cruz, surrounded by a pack of reporters.

His defiance has been wildly cheered by outside conservative groups that have made money on the months-long dispute and the far right flank that hails Cruz and Lee for what they call a principled, courageous stand.

The contrasting views on Lee and Cruz expose how deeply divided the Republican Party has become, especially since losing the 2012 presidential election.

The two senators represent a hardcore wing backed by the small-government tea party movement, which gained momentum after Obama’s 2008 election and is wildly popular in overwhelmingly conservative congressional districts. More pragmatic lawmakers fear the tea partyers are pushing the Republican Party too far to the right to remain competitive in national elections.

Republicans nearly universally oppose the 3-year-old health care law, which aims to extend affordable coverage to millions of Americans now uninsured. They argue that taxes associated with the program are costing jobs and they especially object to a requirement that all Americans have health insurance or face a tax.

Cruz and Lee encouraged the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to try to cripple “Obamacare” through provisions attached to a temporary funding bill needed to keep the government running past Oct. 1. The ensuing standoff with the Democratic-controlled Senate prompted the partial government shutdown and grew to encompass legislation needed to avoid the first debt default in U.S. history.

Cruz, a potential presidential candidate in 2016, seized the headlines during the fight and collected nearly $800,000 for his political action committee in the past three months.

“I think Ted Cruz and Mike Lee did exactly the job that those of us who helped them get elected” wanted them to do, said Drew Ryun of the Madison Project, one of the first conservative organizations to back Cruz last year in his long-shot Senate bid.

Among Senate Republicans, Cruz and Lee are near pariahs, publicly slammed for a tactic that has taken a heavy toll on the Republican standing.

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll showed three-quarters of Americans disapproving of the way congressional Republicans were handling the budget.

“What did I say three weeks ago, what did I say a month ago, it was a fool’s errand,” said Sen. John McCain, a former presidential candidate, waving a copy of the latest poll for reporters clustered in the Senate basement earlier this week. “I knew that it was going to be a disaster and it is a disaster.”

The Houston Chronicle newspaper published an editorial lamenting its endorsement of Cruz’s Senate bid last year, saying he has turned out to be “part of the problem” in Washington.

Compromise has never been part of the vocabulary for Lee, who was elected in 2010, or Cruz, a member of the Senate for some 10 months. The two have been relegated to the sidelines during the Senate negotiations. Neither was part of a bipartisan group that jump-started talks. The two even skipped Tuesday’s weekly closed-door Republican luncheon.

In private, Republicans have been dismissive and confrontational with Cruz, according to lawmakers and congressional aides.

At one meeting, Cruz presented his own poll numbers and argued that Republicans weren’t suffering despite the overwhelming evidence suggesting they were, prompting eye-rolling from his colleagues.

Yet for all the internal back-biting, Cruz stands as the Teflon tea partyer, winning over conservatives.

At the Values Voter Summit this past weekend, an annual gathering of social conservatives and evangelicals, participants echoed Cruz and Lee’s determination not to back down.

Lee brought activists to their feet when he said he was still working with Cruz to strip money from the law.

“We make no apologies. We stand with you,” Lee said, drawing loud applause.

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Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Ken Thomas, Andrew Taylor and Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.

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