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Cruz faces GOP backlash as embattled spending bill heads to vote

The Texas senator is facing a GOP backlash after holding up a critical spending bill and handing Democrats an unexpected advantage.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz pauses as he addresses attendees at the 2014 Red State Gathering on Aug. 8, 2014, in Fort Worth, Texas. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz pauses as he addresses attendees at the 2014 Red State Gathering on Aug. 8, 2014, in Fort Worth, Texas.

A $1.1 trillion spending bill facing intense opposition from progressives and tea partiers is headed for a critical vote in the Senate late Saturday night. At the same time, the Senate removed the immediate threat of a government shutdown by passing a short-term bill in the afternoon that will allow the government to function through Wednesday.

The House passed the measure on Thursday and a White House official told NBC News that President Obama will sign it when it reaches his desk. Without the stopgap bill, government funding would have expired at midnight.

Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee are facing a backlash of their own from Republican colleagues after scuttling a deal between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow lawmakers to leave town over the weekend and vote on the bill Monday. The agreement between the leaders required the unanimous consent of members, but an unsuccessful attempt by Lee and Cruz on Friday to force a vote on a measure to defund President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration upended their plan. The move could rebound against the GOP by giving Democrats an opportunity to advance a number of key presidential appointees over Republican objections while the spending fight is resolved.

"No one wants a government shutdown. We are only seeking a vote."'

"No one wants a government shutdown," Cruz said in a Facebook post defending his approach on Saturday. "We are only seeking a vote. As soon as the Majority Leader allows a vote on a measure to stop President Obama's amnesty, we can and should move forward on this bill to fund the government."

A procedural vote on the main $1.1 trillion spending bill is scheduled for Saturday night at 1 a.m with a final vote expected Monday. While it's expected to reach the 60 votes needed to advance on Saturday, it could be a difficult vote given widespread unease within both parties over its contents. 

Republican Senators were upset with Cruz’s tactical maneuver and not just because it forced them to work through the weekend. Reid used the extra time Saturday afternoon to work through a long slog of procedural votes advancing a number of presidential nominees.In an ironic twist, the move gives Democrats a chance to confirm certain appointees, like NRA-opposed Surgeon General nominee Vivek Murthy, that Cruz and other Republicans oppose and might otherwise have been able to block.

In between votes, a number of Republican senators sharply criticized Cruz and Lee on Saturday, accusing them of undermining the party by handing Obama a victory on nominees just to make a symbolic point.

"I fail to see what conservative ends were achieved," Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona said, according to NBC News.

"I'm going to have to figure out the strategy before I can tell you how effective it is," Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri deadpanned to reporters. 

Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, told the press she was "not happy" with Cruz's approach, which she said "reminds me very much of the shutdown last year where the strategy made absolutely no sense."

The spending deal, nicknamed "the cromnibus" for combining an omnibus spending bill with a continuing resolution, was negotiated between Senate Appropriations chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat, and House Appropriations chairman Hal Rogers, a Republican. Despite its bipartisan origins, it barely passed the House on Thursday after a dramatic last-minute lobbying effort by President Obama and Speaker John Boehner. While it's expected to pass in the Senate, it faces intense criticism from the left and right alike.

The maneuver by Cruz and Lee shined a giant spotlight on Republican divisions just as Democrats' own internal tensions were beginning to steal the show. 

Many Democrats, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, are enraged over a provision attached to the bill that allows Wall Street to trade certain derivatives, a complex financial instrument that fueled the 2008 financial crisis, in financial institutions that are insured by taxpayer dollars. They're also upset over a rider that greatly increases the amount of money political donors are allowed to give parties. 

Progressive lawmakers and activists have mounted an unusually energetic counterattack in recent days, citing the bill as a perfect demonstration of how big banks and special interests exert their influence over government. The Wall Street provision on derivatives was nearly identical to a proposal drafted by Citigroup and Warren ripped into the banking giant in a floor speech on Friday. 

“There is a lot of talk coming from Citigroup about how Dodd-Frank isn’t perfect," Warren, who has sponsored an amendment with Republican Senator David Vitter to reverse the move, said. "So let me say this to anyone who is listening at Citi – I agree with you. Dodd-Frank isn’t perfect. It should have broken you into pieces.”

A spokeswoman for Citigroup declined to comment on Warren's speech, but directed msnbc to an earlier statement arguing that without the bill's amendment, the Wall Street law will push certain derivatives "into less-regulated markets" that are "likely to increase, not decrease, systemic risk."

While 70 Democrats in the House backed the derivatives amendment in a vote earlier this year, it would have faced much tougher odds of final passage were it not slipped into a giant must-pass spending bill, and few lawmakers on either side of the aisle were eager to defend the provision on its own merits this week. After Boehner was asked by Public Radio International reporter Todd Zwillich why "big banks [should] be able to trade derivatives and have their risks covered by us, covered by taxpayers," the Speaker responded only by saying he disagreed with Zwillich's straightforward description and stressed that the overall deal was bipartisan.

"It's breathtaking," Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn Action, told msnbc in an interview Saturday. "The way the [spending bill] played out was like an object lesson in how Washington lobbyists move behind the scenes to create unaccountable governance. That is, until Senator Warren and a movement of others like her around the country stood up and said 'Hell no!'"

There's plenty of outrage on the grassroots right as well, but for mostly other reasons. Republicans, led by conservatives like Cruz and Lee, are demanding that the bill include measures blocking Obama from protecting millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation through executive action. Conservative groups like Heritage Action rallied members to defeat it and some 67 Republicans in the House voted "no" on Thursday.

Related: Elizabeth’s Warren moment

Boehner has tried to reassure his critics that they'll resume the fight over immigration early next year, potentially by holding hostage Homeland Security funding, which is set to expire in February as part of the spending deal, to get their way.

Obama and Reid have argued that the bill protects critical Democratic priorities on health care, the environment, and immigration while providing additional funds for causes like combating Ebola and fighting Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria. Democratic supporters of the deal warn that Republicans are likely to secure even more policy gains if the deal falls apart as they'll be forced to renegotiate next year with a Republican-controlled Senate thanks to the 2014 midterms and an even larger Republican majority in the House.