Ted Cruz to Star in Government Shutdown, the Sequel

The presidential candidate plots another shutdown fight that could boost his prospects in the Republican primary.

Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and 2016 U.S. presidential candidate, speaks during The Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, U.S., on Saturday, July 18, 2015.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

The sequel to Government Shutdown—the 2013 battle that caused the closing of national parks and museums, cost the U.S. economy $20 billion, and tanked the Republican Party's popularity—is slated for this fall and will feature the same star: Ted Cruz.

The Texas senator, now a Republican presidential candidate, is rallying the faithful behind the same strategy as led to a two-week hiatus of government services in October 2013, when he led the party in holding up a government funding bill in a quixotic attempt to strip money for Obamacare. This time, Cruz is using the same Sept. 30 funding deadline to push for stripping Planned Parenthood's $500 million in annual federal dollars. The women's health care provider has become the bête noire of the right after undercover videos surfaced this summer of group officials discussing the cost of aborted fetal tissue.

The resurrected strategy puts Cruz's fellow presidential contenders in a pickle. It is discomfiting to Republican leaders who have been down this road before and fully expect it to end in failure, as it did with the Affordable Care Act, as well as damage the party's image going into an election year where Republicans are defending 24 Senate seats along with their Senate majority.

Cruz, who has made his willingness to defy party leaders one of his political calling cards, is already in attack mode. In an Aug. 25 call, the Texan told a large group of evangelical pastors that Republican leaders want an “empty show vote” that “has no teeth or no consequence” and will ultimately keep funding Planned Parenthood. He urged them to be “preaching from the pulpit” about the value of the unborn.

“We can expect President Obama and many of the congressional Democrats to cry loudly that if Congress uses its authority, Congress will be quote 'shutting down the government.' That, of course, is nonsense,” Cruz said, according to the Washington Post. “It is important that [Congress] hear also that a show vote will not suffice. An empty vote with no teeth on it will not suffice. Now is the time for Congress to act and actually end taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood.”

It's the same argument he made in 2013: if the government shuts down, it won't be his or the GOP's fault. But it didn't work out that way. The Republican Party's approval rating sank to an all-time low during the 2013 shutdown, according to Gallup. History shows that the party controlling Congress, not the White House, takes most of the blame for shutdowns. But even if the 2013 drama wasn't good for his party, it did help Cruz, turning him into a conservative hero. On the campaign trail, he has consistently defended the shutdown, arguing that it brought millions of Americans into the political debate. Reviving that hero status will come in handy in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.

Cruz's co-stars in this year's drama will be the other three Republican senators running for president—Florida's Marco Rubio, Kentucky's Rand Paul, and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, all of whom are struggling to gain traction in a primary field dominated by Donald Trump. Cruz and Rubio are battling for top-five positions, while Paul and Graham are sinking. Though reluctant warriors in the 2013 shutdown, the three senators followed Cruz's lead. Now Cruz is again forcing them to make a political choice that could alienate them from the party's conservative base.

'Horrifying practices'

The effort to defund Planned Parenthood is clearly resonating with conservative voters. During a recent swing through New Hampshire, Rubio was repeatedly asked if he's willing to support a shutdown to ensure that the group loses its federal funding. He kept the door open. “Well, I think that's a question for the Democrats. Are they willing to shut down the government to protect one organization that sells fetal tissue?” he said to voters at an Aug. 26 town hall in Londonderry, earning applause for accusing the group of engaging in “horrifying practices that should offend the conscience of every American.”

As far as conservatives are concerned, the undercover videos are proof that Planned Parenthood is illegally selling the body parts of aborted fetuses. The family planning provider dismisses the controversy as a smear campaign, saying that its staffers were only discussing reimbursement for the legal costs of providing tissue for medical research. Democrats are standing by Planned Parenthood, which provides a range of medical care to low-income women, including abortion. (Federal law prohibits it from using taxpayer money for abortion, but conservatives don't want it to receive any money while it provides abortion services.) “My message to Congress is pass a budget, fund the government,” President Barack Obama said during a recent speech in New Orleans. “Nobody gets to hold the American economy hostage over their own ideological demands.”

Meanwhile, other candidates in the 17-member Republican field may have more to gain by egging on the shutdown. The issue promises to loom large in the party's next presidential debate on Sept. 16. Trump is on record supporting a shutdown if Democrats don't agree to strip money from Planned Parenthood (although he has also said they do some good things for women). Paul hasn't gone as far as endorsing the strategy, but he has signaled openness to it.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said early August that “the next president should defund Planned Parenthood,” a tacit acknowledgement that such a move isn't possible under Obama.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, whose poll standings took a nosedive over the summer, has recently taken on a Cruz-like tone in railing against the GOP for not fighting hard enough. “Republican leaders in Washington told us during the campaign last year that we needed a Republican Senate to repeal Obamacare,” he said mid-August in Minnesota. “Well, Republicans have been in charge of both houses of Congress since January and there still isn't a bill on the president’s desk to repeal Obamacare.”

‘We just don't have the votes’

One House Republican aide, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said conservative lawmakers will make cutting off Planned Parenthood in a funding resolution the issue in September, predicting that the House will bring up and pass such a bill but it will stall in the Senate.

Cruz played a key role in drumming up House Republican support for the 2013 shutdown against the wishes of party leaders.

All of this creates a dilemma for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, who is arguing against the shutdown strategy (as he initially did in 2013). “We just don't have the votes to get the outcome that we'd like,” he told Kentucky's WYMT-TV last week, observing that the president needs to sign bills for them to become law. Several Republican senators facing re-election in states Obama won twice are also opposing the effort, including New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte and Wisconsin's Ron Johnson.

Among the presidential candidates, Graham is the only one to say he opposes the shutdown strategy. “I am not going, as Senator Graham, to shut the government down because of this fight,” he said, according to Roll Call.

Graham polls at 0 percent with Republicans in two recent national surveys.

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