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A Conservative Firestorm? Ted Cruz Is There

Can Ted Cruz be president?
Republican presidential candidate and Texas Senator Ted Cruz speaks at a lobster shop in Seabrook, New Hampshire. Dominick Reuter/Reuters

Updated | Texas Senator and 2016 presidential hopeful Ted Cruz is returning to Washington, D.C. this week after Congress’ August layoff—offering plenty of sound and fury. But Cruz’s efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and stymie the Iran nuclear deal, the two hot button topics before lawmakers in September, will most likely signify little.

Cruz is scheduled to rally in front of the Capitol on Wednesday with Donald Trump, Glenn Beck and other conservatives to fight the Iran deal. But they’re too late. President Obama on Tuesday picked up three more Senate Democrat votes for the accord negotiated between Iran and six world powers earlier this summer. That means not only does the president have the votes to sustain a veto of any congressional resolution disapproving of the deal, he likely won’t even have to dust off his veto pen. Democrats now have 41 votes against such a disapproval resolution, leaving Republicans short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

Even some Republicans scoff that the Cruz rally is too little, too late. “If you’re really seriously trying to kill the deal, where was the grassroots organization to get people out” to protest the deal over Congress’ August recess, when lawmakers were deciding their position, wondered one senior Republican Senate aide, who sniffed that holding a rally at this point is  “a political stunt more than anything, knowing that you’re really not going to alter the outcome.”

A Cruz aide had a different take. “ Despite media reports of a fait accompli the American people are vigorously debating whether we should give $100 billion and provide a path to the bomb for a nation whose leaders regularly chant ‘Death to America’ and ‘Death to Israel,’” the aide said. “Tomorrow’s rally organized by Tea Party Patriots will be a critical part of this debate.” The senator is heavily courting both the Tea Party and evangelical flanks of his party as he tries to stand out from the pack of Republican presidential contenders.

On Tuesday, like the Woody Allen character Zelig who shows up at a slew of famous events, Cruz traveled to Kentucky to visit Kim Davis, the county clerk who was briefly jailed for refusing to issue any marriage licenses because she opposes gay marriage on religious grounds. Cruz had his picture taken with Davis and attended the rally outside the jail organized, in part, by rival presidential candidate Mike Huckabee..

As part of his appeal to religious conservatives, Cruz has also promised to fight federal funding of Planned Parenthood. He’s doing this in the wake of a series of videos that have zeroed in on the women’s health care provider’s practice of harvesting fetal tissue for research. Critics of Planned Parenthood have latched onto the insinuation in the videos that the organization was selling the tissue of aborted fetuses, which is illegal. Planned Parenthood, however, has marshalled evidence that the videos were heavily edited and none of a multitude of state investigations has turned up anything illegal thus far. President Obama and Democrats in Congress, moreover, remain resolutely opposed to cutting funding for the organization, which offers STD tests, contraception and mammograms in addition to providing abortions. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, conceded last week that the votes aren’t there to override the president.

That hasn’t stopped Cruz from drafting a letter to McConnell urging him not to allow any legislation to move through the Senate that would provide funding for Planned Parenthood, similar to one House Republicans sent their leaders in July. It’s just the first step, Cruz’s  aide says, in an effort to defund the organization that will include any and all means necessary. The target right now is a spending bill that will keep the government running after the current fiscal year expires on Sept. 30. Cruz and other conservatives want to strip that bill of any women’s health funding that goes to Planned Parenthood, despite the risk of a government shutdown. It’s a showdown that’s similar to the one over the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) that Cruz spearheaded two years ago, and that left the government closed for more than two weeks.

At least one fellow 2016 Republican says that’s a bad idea. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who’s running a longshot campaign, told Newsweek Monday he would not be signing onto Cruz’s letter. “If I was president I wouldn’t put any money in my budget for Planned Parenthood, I’ll vote to defund it but I will not shut the government down over this issue or any other issue because we’re so much at risk as a nation,” Graham said.

Cruz and like-minded colleagues deny that they are the ones who are engaging in brinksmanship. “All we’re saying is this, fund the government at the levels that both Democrat and Republican leaders agree on” but “the money that was going to Planned Parenthood, instead of going there, will go to other organizations,” says Republican Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio. The head of the conservative Freedom Caucus in the House, Jordan adds that the question is whether the White House and Democrats are so intent on funding the women’s health group “that you’re willing to not pay our troops, not pay our veterans.” Cruz made similar comments at a campaign stop in Houston Sept 1.

Certainly, if Cruz can rally a sizable number of Senate conservatives in opposition to the funding bill, it will push the Republican leaders to compromise with Democrats to have a shot at passing it. But the real fight over Planned Parenthood money will not be in the Senate but in the House, where the government funding debate will start and where there is a stronger bloc of conservatives unwilling to give any ground on the question.

House Speaker John Boehner is “trying to bring along a very loud, vocal group of conservatives, some of whose support he needs” to pass a government spending bill, notes the Senate GOP aide. And unlike McConnell, who has already made clear he doesn’t want a defunding fight, Boehner is under pressure to work with the conservative flank of his party or lose his speakership.

This story has been updated with the latest numbers of senators in support of the Iran deal. 

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