You may not have heard much from Senator Ted Cruz lately, but on Thursday, he came back with a force in blowing up House Republicans’ bill to address the border crisis. Make no mistake, House Speaker John Boehner—and the rest of the Republican establishment—still have a big Ted Cruz problem. And it’s only going to get bigger as the 2016 presidential election approaches.
As it stands now, Cruz has successfully persuaded a block of House Republicans to vote against the House GOP’s border bill, forcing Boehner to pull the legislation from the docket. The situation is still fluid. The House GOP had an emergency meeting this afternoon and a few members have said that they'll stay in session until they vote on the bill. While the next steps are unclear at the moment, what is clear is that Cruz played an integral part in Thursday's events.
This was yet another embarrassing moment for Boehner, new Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and new Majority Whip Steve Scalise. The GOP leadership had tried everything to convince a core group of right wingers to vote for the bill. They reduced the additional funding in it from $1.5 billion to $659 million and added a separate vote to repeal Obama’s 2012 executive action that allowed young undocumented immigrants to stay and work in the U.S. legally, which is officially called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
But that wasn’t enough. House leadership had already forfeited their chance to earn many Democratic votes by making the bill more conservative. Yet, thanks to Cruz’s intense lobbying, those measures were insufficient to garner additional Republican votes. Cruz, who argued that Obama shouldn’t receive any additional funding until he stops DACA, won.
The policy implications of this are small. Senate Democrats opposed the original legislation since it reformed a 2008 child trafficking law. In addition, President Barack Obama had already issued a veto threat. The House GOP’s border crisis bill was an attempt to prove that the conference could actually govern. They proved the opposite.
But the political implications are actually much larger. Since his election in 2012, Cruz has angered a number of his Senate colleagues. He was the architect of the “defund Obamacare” movement last year that ended in a politically toxic government shutdown and eventual Republican capitulation. In February, Cruz forced some of his Republican colleagues to take a politically-damaging vote to raise the debt ceiling. In all of these situations, Cruz has been focused on his own political future, staking out a position as far to the right as he can. He didn’t care that his antics damaged the party. They were good for Ted Cruz—and that’s what mattered.
That’s what happened again on Thursday with the House GOP’s bill to address the border crisis. And it’s going to continue happening in the future, particularly on immigration-related issues where Cruz has always taken a hard line position. For instance, in May 2013 when the Senate was debating comprehensive immigration reform, Cruz introduced an amendment that would ban all undocumented immigrants from earning U.S. citizenship at any point. Expect him to take similar positions if he runs for president.
Such moves play well with the most conservative Republicans—the ones that are most likely to vote in presidential primaries. When the Republican primary actually starts, Cruz, assuming he runs, will continue to position himself as the most conservative candidate, especially on immigration. That will undoubtedly pull other candidates further to the right, reinforcing the perception that the Republican Party is hostile to Hispanics. That, in turn, will only reduce the party’s chances of winning the 2016 presidential election.
That’s the Republican Party’s Ted Cruz problem. As shown by Thursday’s events, the Republican establishment doesn’t have an answer for it.