(Bloomberg) — Ted Cruz is trying a radically new role: dealmaker.
The first-term senator from Texas is seeking to unite warring wings of the Republican Party around an effort to kill the Affordable Care Act and is showing a new willingness to compromise with colleagues to devise a replacement plan.
It’s a significant departure for the formerly obstructionist Cruz, who lost the Republican presidential contest to Donald Trump and has long had icy relations with other lawmakers. Cruz once called Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar on the Senate floor, and former Republican House Speaker John Boehner once called Cruz “Lucifer in the flesh” and the most “miserable son of a bitch” he had ever worked with. His most notable legislative accomplishment so far has been to help force a shutdown of the government for 16 days in 2013 in an unsuccessful effort to strip funding from the Affordable Care Act.
Cruz, 46, said Trump’s election and Republican control of the government prompted him to change his approach. These days, he’s negotiating regularly with McConnell and other senators. “The entire world changed on election day,” Cruz said in one of several recent interviews. “My focus today is on delivering results and not wasting this historic opportunity.”
Cruz’s engagement underscores how difficult it has been for Republicans to follow through on one of the party’s top priorities. While the majority of GOP lawmakers have long championed getting rid of the Affordable Care Act, there are deep divisions among Republicans about what should replace it. While the House narrowly passed a health care plan, Senate Republicans have been mired in discussions about how to craft legislation that could attract enough votes to pass.
Fellow Republicans say they’re pleased with Cruz’s current approach.
Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican whip and fellow Texas senator, called his health care efforts “constructive.”
“I like the way Senator Cruz has been conducting himself,” Cornyn said.
Whether he’ll be able to help bridge the Republican divide, given that his previous behavior left a strong distaste with a number of lawmakers, remains to be seen. McConnell has said Republicans are nearing the introduction of their health care plan. But some GOP senators have said they’re skeptical about whether their party can pass a bill.
Cruz has been working to pass a health care bill for several months. He set up a working group of conservatives and moderates, starting with Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, which later expanded to include party leaders. They met once a week for two months in Cruz’s conference room without the press catching wind of it — a point of pride for Cruz.
“The week after the election I brought my staff together,” he said, and told them they had a new mission. For the past four years, he told them, they had been fighting “a president with a radical agenda” and had focused on stopping bad things from happening as the loyal opposition.
Republicans can’t afford to lose the support of Cruz, making him crucial not only to passing a health care bill in the Senate but also to potentially selling such a compromise to House conservatives and outside groups.
Cruz already played a behind-the-scenes role in the May House vote to approve that chamber’s version of an Affordable Care Act change bill, H.R. 1628.
After an earlier attempt to pass H.R. 1628, the American Health Care Act bill, collapsed because of opposition from the Freedom Caucus, Cruz was among those insisting the party not give up.
Rep. Mark Meadows (Photo: Meadows)
“I have long said, when it comes to repealing Obamacare, failure is not an option. This was the central promise Republicans have made for seven years,” he said. But he also criticized an early version of the bill for not doing enough to repeal Affordable Care Act regulations and to bring down premiums.
Cruz worked with House conservatives, including Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina. He penned an op-ed in Politico arguing that language gutting the Affordable Care Act insurance regulations should be included in the bill and could pass procedural muster in the Senate.
Meadows said he’s met with Cruz many times on health care, often “without any fanfare or any knowledge of his involvement.”
“I don’t know that it’s a different Ted Cruz, because I’ve seen this Ted Cruz before,” Meadows said. “The only one that got reported for a long time was the other Ted Cruz.”
“I’m very optimistic that his involvement this time will actually produce results,” Meadows said. “He knows the real pressure points and what becomes real obstacles for us.”
An amendment giving states the option to nix insurance regulations ultimately brought on members of the Freedom Caucus and the votes for the bill. But Cruz’s task in the Senate is harder. While Ryan could lose more than 20 Republican votes and still pass the bill, McConnell can only lose two.
New and Improved
It’s a fact Cruz cites repeatedly when asked about his new approach. The new Cruz makes clear his preferences but isn’t drawing red lines in public that could blow up the bill.
Take the issue of taxes. A central dispute among Republicans is whether any Affordable Care Act repeal must eliminate all of its taxes, including those on the wealthy.
Moderates like Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are focused more on cutting premiums while not leaving tens of millions more people without insurance as the Congressional Budget Office says the House bill would do.
“We should repeal all of the Obamacare taxes,” Cruz said. “But I’m sure that and many other issues will continue to be subjects of discussion within the conference, and to reach a bill that can pass, we have to arrive upon a proposal that will command the support of 50 senators.”
Cruz is in a vastly different place than he was a year ago. Back then, the Cruz who excoriated his colleagues was running for president.
His tactics and demeanor rubbed so many colleagues the wrong way that Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina joked to reporters that senators wouldn’t convict his murderer. Another time, he said a choice between Trump and Cruz for the party’s nomination was like choosing to get shot or getting poisoned.
Cruz is now running for re-election and in need of rehabbing relationships with his colleagues. Legislative wins might help, too. He said he is optimistic that a health care deal will come together, even as several colleagues have predicted failure.
“For several months now, I have been spending day and night, meeting with House members, meeting with senators, meeting with the administration, to bring people together to actually deliver on our promise to repeal Obamacare and critically to lower premiums to make health care more affordable,” he said.
He added: “You need senators who represent different parts of the conference, are in different spots on the ideological spectrum and are willing to work together in good faith and productively to reach a solution.”
— Read Freedom Caucus Keeps Heat on Would-Be ACA Changers on ThinkAdvisor.