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Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz Are More Similar Than You Think

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A narrow Senate majority will present Republicans with new grounds upon which to test their ability to govern. For months now I’ve argued that as much as Republicans can and should want to win the Senate, victory will present under-appreciated challenges to a party that’s internally divided, and out of power in the White House.

On the eve of Tuesday’s midterm, Ted Cruz has emerged as the unsurprising face of that challenge. In an interview with The Washington Post this weekend, Cruz advocated for direct confrontation with President Obama, not just by laying out a hardline legislative strategy but by playing coy about whether he’d support Mitch McConnell’s bid to head the Senate GOP conference as majority leader.

This is taken to underscore the challenge McConnell will face next year.

And it’s unquestionably true that McConnell will have to be a nimble operator if he’s going to get Maine Senator Susan Collins, who says “we’re past” the point at which voting to repeal Obamacare makes sense, on the same page as Cruz, who told the Post that Republicans should “pursue every means possible to repeal Obamacare.”

But based on what we know right now, it’s perfectly plausible that the Collins wing of the party will present McConnell with greater obstacles than the Cruz wing of the party.

Cruz told the Post that Republicans should use the budget process to force a filibuster-proof vote on gutting Obamacare, and, in anticipation of Obama's veto, that they should prepare to vote on repealing individual provisions of the law "one at a time." 

If McConnell were opposed to this strategy, then you could construe Cruz’s comments as a shot across his bow. But just last week, McConnell's spokesman said he “believes that if Republicans are fortunate enough to take back the majority we’ll owe it to the American people to try [to repeal Obamacare] through votes on full repeal, the bill’s most onerous provisions, and reconciliation.”

McConnell isn't at odds with Cruz here. Their strategies are practically identical. The source of any tension right now is coming from McConnell’s left.

That could obviously change. McConnell only announced this game plan after conservatives grumbled that he seemed insufficiently committed to confronting Obama over the Affordable Care Act. He recently told Fox News, “It would take 60 votes in the Senate, and no one thinks we’re going to have 60 Republicans…it would take a president—presidential signature. And no one thinks we're going to get that.”

If he reached the conclusion that Republicans should use aggressive parliamentary tactics reluctantly, then it points to the influence of the Cruz wing. And if Cruz et al use that influence to force Republicans into tactical disasters, like they did during last year’s government shutdown, then the right really will render the Senate majority ungovernable.

But so far, all the right has won for itself is an additional Obamacare show vote. Using the reconciliation process to avoid a filibuster will require Republicans to first pass a budget, and to then find 51 votes to gut the ACA. McConnell might have preferred to sidestep that challenge. But it’s only evidence of a hopeless schism between McConnell and the right if it’s a harbinger of increasingly reactionary demands. He’s already agreed to try.