With his poll numbers falling far short of those garnered by Republican presidential candidates who’ve never held elected office, Ted Cruz has a chance this week to prove he’s just as anti-Washington as his rivals atop the leaderboard — despite the “Texas senator” title that suggests he's part of the political establishment.
On Tuesday, Cruz could reprise his starring role in a congressional fight to fund the government, this time over taxpayer dollars going to Planned Parenthood.
The women’s health organization has been under fire for months, following the release of of secretly recorded videos that were edited by an anti-abortion group to show Planned Parenthood executives casually discussing the process of donating fetal tissue for medical research. Planned Parenthood maintains that any money exchanged goes solely to covering the costs of transferring the tissue to medical research facilities, and that its roughly $500 million in public funding pays only for women’s health services — such as contraception, cervical cancer screening, and STD testing — not abortions.
But Cruz seems hell-bent on stripping Planned Parenthood of all federal funds, and that hard-line position could very well shut down the government for the second time in as many years.
Last week, the Republican-controlled Senate rejected a short-term spending bill that would have done just what Cruz was hoping for. Now, lawmakers are up against a tight deadline to pass a so-called “clean” continuing resolution bill by Wednesday in order to fund the government through Dec. 11 at its current levels — included in that is the $500 million for Planned Parenthood. Senate lawmakers easily passed a procedural motion to advance the short-term spending bill on Monday evening, setting up a potentially fiery final vote for Tuesday.
Monday night brought a sign that Cruz is lacking allies in his fight to shut down the government over federal funding for Planned Parenthood: His attempt to force a recorded vote to kill the "clean" government funding bill failed because not a single senator seconded it. Cruz's motion to end the bill then failed by voice vote.
At that point, Cruz began speaking on the Senate floor, railing against Republicans leadership, but was abruptly stopped after one hour had passed, in accordance to Senate rules. His motion to extend his time was denied by Democrats.
Cruz has promised to delay a vote on the continuing resolution, most recently telling Fox News over the weekend that Congress should “use the constitutional power of the purse to decline to give money to Planned Parenthood.”
“It’s not part of the government,” he said. Plus, it’s “under multiple criminal investigations.”
But the White House hopeful's stand against the spending bill is likely as political as it is principled.
“For Cruz’s presidential campaign, the stakes couldn’t be higher in terms of the upcoming congressional showdown,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who worked on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “He wants to be seen as a political outsider and, right now, he’s not gaining traction in the polls because he’s seen as an insider.”
That “insider” perception is not for lack of trying to convince voters of otherwise. Since his arrival in Washington nearly three years ago, Cruz has been a perennial thorn in the side of establishment Republicans, notably playing a key role in the budget impasse over Obamacare funding that prompted the 2013 government shutdown. As a presidential candidate, meanwhile, Cruz constantly describes himself as a “consistent conservative” who won’t buckle under political pressure and won’t allow Washington to operate under its current dysfunction.
But as polls have shown so far, it can be difficult to run as a Washington outsider in a field with several candidates who have literally never worked in Washington. Take for example, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which found real estate mogul Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson running neck and neck in the national Republican presidential horse race. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina tied for third place in the survey alongside Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who’s fast becoming Republicans’ “insider” candidate of choice — or at least, their insider preference for now. Cruz, on the other hand, only raked in 5% support, nearly half of what he enjoyed two months ago.
Struggling to break through, the Texas senator has clearly decided to step up his game in the past week, potentially teeing up a big show at the budget showdown. At the Values Voters Summit on Friday, Cruz took full advantage of House Speaker John Boehner’s plans to resign, telling the crowd of evangelical voters they’d successfully scared him away.
“My only request is: Can you come more often?” Cruz joked. He later took home his third-straight victory in the summit’s straw poll.
It’s still unclear what Cruz plans to do when the Senate puts the continuing resolution to a final vote on Tuesday. Cruz’s Senate office did not reply to a request for comment, and he has not made any promises to embark on another 21-hour floor speech —in fact, Cruz would not be allowed to take to the floor again on the issue unless another senator yields him more time.
But even if he decides not to put up a fight this time around, Cruz will have another chance to do so in December, when the stopgap spending bill runs out, conveniently just before the 2016 nominating contest kicks into high gear. Congress will also have to vote to raise the debt ceiling around the same time.
“December could be a make or break moment for Cruz,” O’Connell said.
Of course, allowing the government to shut down or default on its financial obligations also carries an enormous amount of political risk. Nearly seven in 10 Americans said in a recent Quinnipiac University poll they were against shutting down the government over Planned Parenthood, indicating trouble for Cruz in the general election should he decide to go down that path. But, as O’Connell put it, “he isn’t thinking about general election right now.”
"All options are on the table if you're Ted Cruz," he said.
—NBC News' Frank Thorp V contributed reporting to this article.