Ted Cruz's big year: A look back at his 2014, and how he can ruin 2015 too

The Texas senator is finishing an impressive sophomore year. How can he top it in 2015?

By Jim Newell

Published January 1, 2015 5:00PM (EST)

Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz                                           (Reuters/Joshua Roberts/AP/J. Scott Applewhite/photo montage by Salon)
Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz (Reuters/Joshua Roberts/AP/J. Scott Applewhite/photo montage by Salon)

Texas junior Sen. Ted Cruz's second year in the World's Greatest Deliberative Body didn't have the soaring climax that his first year did. It's hard to top a rookie season in which you're the principal force behind the first government shutdown in nearly two decades. But his second year was no sophomore slump, either. Instead of the lone bomb-drop, Cruz spread out his havoc with more consistency, if less profound stakes.

He perfected his finishing move, which we'll call "The Cruz Finishing Move" to skip the inevitably doomed effort of pun-workshopping. This is the tactic he introduced leading into the '13 shutdown: John Boehner and the House leadership come up with a strategy that they hope will move an important item of legislation through the House, and then "Speaker Cruz" has lunch with Rep. Steve King and some other conservative troublemakers whom he persuades to withhold their votes. Boehner has to change the strategy by either making the legislation more conservative, thus killing its chances in the Senate, or more liberal, in order to make up the shortfall with Democratic votes. The Cruz Finishing Move was employed in both the border crisis legislative debate (remember the "border crisis"?) and the more recent "cromnibus" effort.

When not messing around with the House leadership's plans, Cruz was busy dicking around with the Republican minority leader in his own chamber. In February, Mitch McConnell wanted to let a debt ceiling hike go through but keep Republican fingerprints off of it. But Cruz, much to the annoyance of his colleagues, decided to filibuster. That put Republican leaders in the awkward situation of having to vote to break the filibuster and then vote against the underlying legislation that they allegedly considered repulsive. And just this past weekend, Cruz held up passage of the "cromnibus" in order to secure a stunt vote of his own, a maneuver that ended up helping Harry Reid get various nominations through before the end of the 113th Congress.

There's a simple trend here underlying all of Ted Cruz's stunts in both his first and second years in office: They make life difficult for Republican leaders and allow Cruz to portray himself to "the base" as the lone member of the GOP with a "spine." In other words, they're self-serving and counterproductive.

Cruz's third year is building up to be a big one. He will be a member of the Senate majority and most likely running for president. He'll now have two Republican majority leaderships to heckle as spineless in pursuit of his own political ends. Here are some ideas, with varying levels of absurdity, for how Cruz can make his best album yet in the new year.

Block all votes on presidential nominees until President Obama ends his "executive amnesty."

Ha, this is actually one of Ted Cruz's real ideas for 2015. He's not the majority leader, so it's not up to him who or what will be brought up for a vote. But having little to no seniority has rarely been a problem for his chaos-making efforts in the past. All he has to do is sell his fantasy to "the base" and strike the fear of a primary challenge in his colleagues.

Shut down the Department of Homeland Security until Obama's "executive amnesty" is defunded.

The "cromnibus" was forged as a compromise between appropriators, who wanted to see their long-negotiated package for funding the government through September passed, and conservative firebrands, who wanted to take some sort of hazily defined stand against Obama's executive action on immigration. It combined an omnibus spending package covering 11 of 12 appropriations bills for the remainder of the fiscal year with a continuing resolution (CR) funding the Department of Homeland Security for a few months.

The short-term CR for DHS is what we call a "punt," in that there's no real plan for what House and Senate leadership will actually do when funding is set to dry up. "Hope that the base has calmed down by then???" is both what leaders are most praying for and the least likely imaginable scenario.

Boehner and/or McConnell will probably end up offering conservatives another sort of "venting" vote as a trade for DHS funding. That will be Cruz's opening to pressure conservatives into rejecting it and prompting a partial government shutdown that ends with the president mostly getting what he wants. Victory!

Demand that Mitch McConnell use budget reconciliation to repeal Obamacare instead of using budget reconciliation for achieving something.

One of the procedural considerations picking up steam within conservative circles around election time was that Mitch McConnell should use the budget reconciliation process -- a maneuver that allows legislation, meeting certain budgetary conditions, to pass the Senate without threat of filibuster -- to pass a repeal of Obamacare. This was a classic right-wing fixation in that it was glaringly quixotic and mathematically unsound: Obama would just veto such a reconciliation measure and that would be the end of that.

Reconciliation is sort of a one-shot thing, so if you're going to use it, it had better be on something that the president faces pressure to sign: a repeal of the medical device tax or some other unpopular, if not central, component of the Affordable Care Act. (Although a repeal of the medical device tax could probably get 60 votes in the Senate, so ... I dunno, something else. Mitch McConnell's a bright guy and I'm sure he can think of something.)

Anyway, the role of "guy who applies pressure on Mitch McConnell to waste his best procedural bullet on a messaging stunt doomed to fail" is tailor-made for Ted Cruz.

Block a raise in the debt ceiling until Obamacare is repealed.

Block a raise in the debt ceiling until Obama is repealed.

Block a raise in the debt ceiling until Iran is "nuked real good."

Block a raise in the debt ceiling until a constitutional amendment is passed and signed into law declaring Ted Cruz POTUS/Emperor-for-Life.

You know, use the debt ceiling for leverage, etc.

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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