Ted Cruz can't wait to run the Senate: The frightening reason why these midterms matter

Tea Party leader's spoiling for another debt ceiling fight. It's a sign of worse things to come if GOP wins control

Published September 11, 2014 4:42PM (EDT)

  (AP/Molly Riley)
(AP/Molly Riley)

Once again the House Republican leadership is trying to sneak through a piece of necessary legislation without it becoming a whole big thing, and once again Sen. Ted Cruz is "gathering" with House Republicans to get them to turn it into a whole big thing.

Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy want to pass a three-month continuing resolution to fund the government into December and eliminate the threat of a hilarious government shutdown immediately before the midterm elections. It shouldn't be that much of a problem. The vote has been postponed for now, but only to consider adding the funding that President Obama requested for arming and training some collection of mysterious elements in Syria.

But the longer the continuing resolution is tabled, the more time it buys Ted Cruz to coax House conservatives into issuing complicating demands. Interestingly, Cruz is arguing that the continuing resolution should extend further -- for six months instead of three. It's not because Cruz has suddenly developed an affinity for funding federal governments. It's because he wants the next fiscal debate to take place in the next Congress, in which Republicans may control the Senate, rather than in the lame duck session. With Republicans hypothetically in control of both chambers of Congress, the next government funding battle could be bundled with the next debt ceiling vote in a play for maximum leverage, the Washington Post's Robert Costa reports.

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Roll Call has more:

“It would be a serious mistake for House Republicans to pass a Continuing Resolution that would ensure that Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats would come back to Washington, after many of them will have likely lost their seats, for a no-holds barred lame duck session where they will be free to pass legislation that the American people will never be able to hold them responsible for,” the Texas Republican said in a statement provided to CQ Roll Call.

“Americans cannot trust politicians they can no longer hold accountable at the ballot box,” Cruz said. “The Continuing Resolution should, at a minimum, fund government operations until after the new Congress is sworn in next year; House and Senate Republicans should both insist on this basic principle.”

Unlike a lot of Cruz's requests, this one's not unreasonable. It makes you wonder why this six-monther isn't the proposal that the House leadership drew up in the first place. Perhaps it's because Boehner, McCarthy and co. don't want to find themselves in another scenario where government funding and the debt ceiling are lumped together. They'd much rather have a standoff over government spending on its own terms and then quietly push through the next debt ceiling hike when it's required. But that's never going to be easy for them: If Republicans hold both chambers of Congress, there's going to be an extraordinary amount of pressure from within the conservative flank of the party, aimed at Republican leaders in both the House and Senate, to extract debt ceiling demands anew.

This is as good an opportunity as any to home in on what's really at stake in this November's elections.

There's a tendency out there to dismiss the importance of who controls the Senate for the next two years. It goes a lil' something like this: There will be almost total gridlock regardless of which party is running the chamber. And that's mostly true. Whether it's Mitch McConnell or Harry Reid running the action, there's no way that any non-mandatory legislation that's even slightly ambitious, like comprehensive immigration reform or tax reform or a hike in the minimum wage or what have you, is going to find its way onto the president's desk in the next two years.

But then there's mandatory legislation -- or at least what most sane people would consider mandatory, such as raising the debt ceiling. After several brushes with the apocalypse, conservatives finally seem to be in a place where they're comfortable raising the debt ceiling under the current structure, in which each party controls a chamber of Congress. It wasn't easy, but conservatives ultimately came around to the fact that debt ceiling standoffs weren't worth it as long as Democrats controlled both the Senate and the White House.

Alter that formula just a little bit, though, and all of the angst is going to flood back. With Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, the leadership is going to feel fantastic pressure from conservatives to extract demands by taking the borrowing limit hostage. The scene could be just as chaotic as it was in the awful summer of 2011, the last time Republicans felt so compelled. It may well be an awful hellish nightmare. Who likes awful hellish nightmares? No one does, that would be weird.

So, sure, despite what the DNC and RNC say every election cycle, this won't be the Most Important Election of Our Lifetime. But there is one very clear awful thing looming on the calendar that makes voting in tight November races worth it.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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