WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The bitter budget fight in Congress that shuttered the U.S. government this month was a success for conservatives even though various polls indicate it damaged them politically, Republican Senator Ted Cruz said on Thursday.
Cruz - a ringleader of conservative Republicans’ push to hold up government funding to try to weaken Democratic President Barack Obama’s healthcare law - told the Reuters Washington Summit that although the effort did not yield changes to “Obamacare,” it did ignite Tea Party grassroots activists and intensify scrutiny of the law.
An unapologetic Cruz, whose tactics in targeting Obamacare drew heavy criticism from Democrats and some fellow Republicans, defended his actions and vowed to keep the debate over the healthcare law front and center in the next round of budget battles early next year.
“I think we accomplished a great deal. We saw the grassroots become energized, we saw the House of Representatives listen to the people. That’s a powerful demonstration of what can happen,” the freshman senator said.
Cruz praised Tea Party conservatives who have challenged the Republican “establishment,” and said some Senate Republicans who refused to back him during the shutdown fight could face consequences at the ballot box in 2014. The Tea Party advocates for small government and low taxes.
His words echoed those of groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), a Tea Party-backed organization that has signaled it will target incumbents including Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate. McConnell helped to broker the deal that ended the shutdown without significant changes to Obamacare.
SCF has announced that it will support McConnell’s Tea party-aligned challenger in the Republican primary, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin.
Even as he seemed to encourage such challenges to his own party’s leadership in the Senate, Cruz said it was not likely that he would campaign in any Republican Senate primaries with incumbents next year.
‘TRYING TO MAKE D.C. LISTEN’
Opinion polls indicate that Americans blame Republicans more than Democrats or Obama for the unpopular 16-day shutdown and near-default by the U.S. government.
Approval ratings for the party have plunged heading into an election year in which Republicans will try to gain a net of six seats to take over the Democrat-led Senate, while trying to keep Democrats from gaining a net of 17 seats to take over the House.
Cruz said on Thursday the polls overstated Americans’ dissatisfaction with Republicans during the shutdown fight. Outside Washington, public reaction to his effort - including his highly publicized, 21-hour speech against Obamacare on the Senate floor - had been positive and “breathtaking,” he said.
“The most important thing this battle was about was not Obamacare, it wasn’t even the federal budget. It was trying to make D.C. listen, trying to change the culture,” Cruz said. “Unfortunately, the Senate didn’t listen this time. But ultimately I hope they will.”
Cruz, who sidestepped a question about whether he might run for president in 2016, has been criticized for pushing Republicans into an unwinnable confrontation with Obama over the healthcare law, the president’s signature domestic achievement.
Cruz blamed the failure to win concessions from Obama during the fiscal impasse on the 27 Senate Republicans who deserted him and voted for final passage of the budget deal. He said a unified Republican front could have forced Obama to retreat on the healthcare law.
“The House Republicans demonstrated a profile in courage by listening to their constituents,” Cruz said.
“If Senate Republicans had stood unified with House Republicans, I believe we would have achieved meaningful relief for Americans,” he said.
‘PLENTY OF TIME’
The deal approved by Congress this month postponed the next budget fight until early next year. But Cruz said he had not decided which tactics or strategies he would use in battling Obamacare in the months ahead.
“There will be plenty of time between now and then to talk about specific strategic tactical steps,” Cruz said.
He predicted that Obamacare would continue to be a significant issue through the 2014 elections. Conservative groups such as SCF and Club for Growth are targeting McConnell and other Senate Republicans - including Mississippi’s Thad Cochran - who have drawn primary challengers from Tea Party-backed candidates.
Cruz suggested he sympathizes with the Tea Party challengers because of his own beginning in national politics last year - as an underdog Senate candidate who ran a grassroots campaign and defeated Texas’ establishment-backed lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, in the Republican primary.
“I don’t feel (always backing fellow Republican incumbents) would be consistent with the promises I made to the men and women who elected me,” Cruz said. “I don’t think it would be consistent with those promises to say, ‘Well, now that I‘m here, I’ll endorse all the incumbents.’ ”
Cruz’s hard-charging, high-profile style has proven highly divisive in the typically genteel Senate, alienating even some fellow Republicans who have called him a bully with an oversized appetite for publicity.
He acknowledged the criticism and said the Tea Party’s impact on American politics is “terrifying” to many Washington politicians.
“The Tea Party has been much maligned by D.C. politicians, (but) I think the Tea Party is one of the most exciting developments in modern times,” Cruz said.
“The Tea Party is led by thousands of grassroots leaders across the country organically, from the people. That is a world in which a great many elected officials in Washington don’t know how to survive.”
Additional reporting by Paige Gance; Editing by David Lindsey and Philip Barbara