Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) refused repeatedly to endorse Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) as a “true conservative” on NBC News’ Meet the Press Sunday, withholding the label amid an ongoing power vacuum in the House created after Cruz’s allies chased Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) into resignation and stymied Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) campaign to replace him.
“I like Paul Ryan. He’s a friend of mine. This is obviously a question that is wrapped up in the Speaker of the House deliberations,” Cruz said when asked if Ryan is a “true conservative” by host Chuck Todd. “I have said consistently I’m gonna stay outta that.”
Todd pressed the point, observing that Cruz has been more open with his praise for right-wing radio host Mark Levin than he has with Ryan, who seems the natural successor to Boehner’s gavel now that Cruz’s gang of banditos has turned McCarthy away.
“Mark Levin is definitely a true conservative,” Cruz said.
“You’ll say that but you won’t say Paul Ryan is. [Levin] doesn’t think Paul Ryan is right now,” Todd responded. Cruz again claimed he’s staying out of the House’s leadership squabble, even though Cruz is viewed as a de facto leader of the House Freedom Caucus’ ultra-conservative bloc that dethroned Boehner and destroyed McCarthy’s candidacy on the day the latter was expected to win the gavel.
Cruz’s role within that group is unofficial but influential. He meets monthly with the 40 or so hardliners in the 10-month-old caucus, and the group has helped drive Cruz’s own tactical agenda in the lower chamber dating back to before the official formation of the caucus. Hill Democrats have taken to calling him “Speaker Cruz” for his ability to wield that key chunk of GOP votes against Boehner’s machinations in recent years.
With fights over the debt ceiling and a possible government shutdown looming over the coming weeks, the vacuum Cruz’s allies have created in House leadership has worrying implications for the nation as a whole, not just Republican party insiders.
Boehner is set to quit his post at the end of October. Near the beginning of November, the Treasury Department says, America will hit the statutory debt limit. If Congress does not raise that constraint, the government will not be able to continue selling debts to fund the things Congress has told it to spend money on in other legislation.
Raising the debt limit is a perfunctory thing necessary for doing the business of government, but Republicans have used the threat of a national default as a point of leverage in political fights for years now. Just forcing America to the brink of default was enough to cause a first-ever downgrade of the U.S. bond rating by Standard & Poors a couple years ago.
In past games of debt-ceiling chicken, Speaker Boehner has been able to narrowly navigate through the resistance of right-wingers in the House and pass bills to avoid default. McCarthy, long a top deputy to Boehner, was seen as having the same kind of self-preservation instinct to cut deals to prevent the massive self-inflicted economic wound that missing a debt ceiling hike would cause. But the Freedom Caucus denied McCarthy the votes he needed to get to 218.
With McCarthy ruled out and former Minority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) already ousted by a Tea Party coup in his district, longtime budget chairman and former Vice Presidential nominee Ryan has been the obvious next man up for the leadership job. It’s not clear he wants the job, but even if he does he would need the votes Cruz’s crew withheld from McCarthy. Without Ryan, the GOP’s divided House caucus would likely struggle to come together around bills to avert both a default and the second government shutdown in as many years.