Shutdown star Ted Cruz wants to keep the lights on this time

What happens when the government shuts down?

The world won't end if Washington can't find a way to pass a funding bill before this weekend. That's the truth about a government "shutdown": the government doesn't shut down.
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The world won't end if Washington can't find a way to pass a funding bill before this weekend. That's the truth about a government "shutdown": the government doesn't shut down.

The star of Washington’s last shutdown is working to keep the government open this time.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, could still pay a political price for this weekend’s drama on Capitol Hill — if voters blame the GOP-controlled Congress for failing to reach a deal on a must-pass spending bill to fund the government.

Republicans fear a lack of enthusiasm from their base could put Cruz and other Texas Republicans in danger of losing their re-election bids in 2018 if voters stay away from the polls because they see Congress as unwilling to help President Donald Trump’s agenda.

“It’s a mess. I don’t want to see the government shut down… Why can’t [lawmakers] come together?” said Bruce Jacobson, a Republican challenging Cruz in Texas’s March 6 primary.

Jacobson, who lives in North Richland Hills, has framed his campaign in large part as a stylistic challenge to Cruz, citing the senator’s role in a 2013 shutdown as an example. Jacobson faces long odds against the well-funded incumbent.

“I found it to be unbecoming,” Jacobson said of Cruz’s leading, very public role in the 2013 failed effort, which aimed to defund Obamacare.

“When you use fiscal legislation to try to advance substantially unrelated policy... you better have an exit plan,” Jacobson said.

Congress’ inaction shut down much of the federal government Saturday, as the Senate would not pass a House-approved bill to maintain funding through Feb. 16 and reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Five Senate Democrats supported limiting debate on the bill, while five Republicans, including Cruz’s frequent conservative allies, Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, voted against it. Sixty votes are needed in the Senate, and Republicans control 51.

Cruz, who has been on an image-repair mission since his failed 2016 GOP presidential bid, sided with party leaders this time. Saturday, top GOP officials blamed Democrats for the impasse. Many Democrats objected to the bill’s failure to protect recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program from deportation.

“Paychecks could cease. Services will be disrupted. All because of an unrelated immigration issue that won't get resolved if the government shuts down,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Cornyn, along with other GOP negotiators, scrambled late into the night Friday and again Saturday to find a solution that could garner enough Democratic support to pass the Senate.

Cruz made no public statement about the shutdown. His office declined to weigh in on the matter Saturday.

He’s spent the past year working tirelessly to prove he can be a team player in GOP-controlled Washington, including helping pass a tax reform bill in December.

That work has helped him avoid a major primary challenge. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry once threatened to recruit someone.

Cruz had nearly $5.7 million on hand at the end of September. Jacobson has not yet announced his first fundraising haul. He told the Star-Telegram he’d spoken with both former George W. Bush operative Karl Rove and U.S. Chamber senior political strategist Scott Reed about his race.

Neither man has endorsed Jacobson or gotten involved in the primary. Reed confirmed that he spoke with Jacobson, but personally gave the maximum contribution to Cruz’s Senate campaign in December. He noted that the Chamber hasn’t weighed in on the Texas Senate race.

Cruz, who won his first Senate race after an upset victory in the 2012 Republican primary, faces a bigger threat from a Democrat.

El Paso Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke has been aggressively traveling the state campaigning, and kept roughly even with Cruz’s fundraising.

O’Rourke said Saturday that he’d canceled his flight to Texas to work toward a solution.

“There was another vote today to adjourn — literally go home and let the government shut down without anyone here to do the work of keeping it going,” said O’Rourke. “I voted against the shutdown today for the same reason I voted against the Ted Cruz shutdown in 2013. We should never allow our differences to stop us from serving those whom we represent.”

Republicans say the race will be determined in large part by whether Republicans turn out to vote in November.

The GOP-controlled Congress failed to deliver Republicans a repeal of the Affordable Care Act last year, something party strategists ranked crucial to their turnout efforts in 2018.

Republicans in Washington have also failed to deliver on Trump’s border security promises, which the GOP grassroots in Texas ranks as a top issue.

“I’m more concerned about the Right at this point,” said Texas GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser. “I’m more concerned about conservatives who are either going to show up or not show up in 2018… because if [Republicans] lose the base they’re not going to win.”

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch