Ted Cruz talks shutdown strategy with conservatives

Published 2:40 PM EDT, Wed September 9, 2015

Story highlights

Ted Cruz is meeting with House conservatives to talk about the government shutdown

Cruz said it was time for his party's leadership to stiffen its spines

Washington CNN —  

Ted Cruz is trying to get the band back together.

The Texas firebrand senator and GOP presidential candidate plans to huddle with House conservatives amidst a growing number of conflicts between the party’s leadership and right flank. The most pressing: How to fully fund the federal government by month’s end and avert a shutdown while appeasing conservatives who are demanding that Planned Parenthood not receive a dime of taxpayer money.

Cruz has sent out invites for a meeting as soon as Wednesday, according to two House Republican lawmakers.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas), who said he was invited to the meeting in Cruz’s office, said there’s a reason for the skull-session: to collaborate on strategy opposing the party leadership.

“The establishment would like the House conservatives never to talk,” Huelskamp told CNN. “Because we always hear that our leadership said this and that are impossible to do. How do we get around the reluctance of our establishment in Washington to get done what we all said we were going to do in August?”

“I am meeting with Ted Cruz later today. It’s a free-flowing conversation,” said Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala). “I like rapping with him.”

Talking strategy

It’s not the first time that Cruz has met with the House’s most conservative lawmakers. The meetings, typically over pizza, Dr. Pepper and beer, often are social in nature, but the participants do talk strategy and tactics, which are often at odds with the party leadership. It is similar to a 2013 effort to unite conservatives behind a push to defund Obamacare, an effort that prompted an internal GOP battle and a 16-day government shutdown.

A Cruz aide confirmed Wednesday that conservatives had been invited to the meeting but said that it could be delayed until later this week.

READ: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz join forces on Iran

Speaking to reporters outside the Senate chamber, Cruz said it was time for his party’s leadership to stiffen its spines.

“The right answer is not the Washington solution of a meaningless show vote,” Cruz said. “The solution that makes sense is we should not be spending taxpayer funds to fund an ongoing criminal enterprise.”

Cruz was referring to the Planned Parenthood controversy centering on videos that depict group officials discussing the sale of aborted fetal tissue. Planned Parenthood has denied wrongdoing.

Cruz would not say if he would support a conservative effort to oust House Speaker John Boehner, saying, “It’s a question for the House to decide.”

It’s unclear how much sway Cruz holds among House Republicans after the 2013 shutdown. Many admitted that showdown over Obamacare was a mistake and future fights over funding shouldn’t put the party in a similar position.

But the meeting comes at a critical juncture on Capitol Hill. In addition to the funding fight, there’s a growing GOP division over the strategy to take on Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran, with Cruz and other conservatives demanding that the party leadership delay a vote until more documents are provided by the White House. Moreover, the business community is ratcheting up pressure on House Republicans to revive the Export-Import Bank, the country’s chief export credit agency, which is reviled by conservatives.

Major campaign issue

In the aftermath of the controversial Planned Parenthood videos, conservative lawmakers are insisting that the none of the $500 million in annual funding that typically goes to the organization should be provided this year.

But both Senate Democratic leaders and President Barack Obama have said they won’t accept any stop-gap funding bill that touches Planned Parenthood allocations, meaning the issue must be resolved or there’s a chance the government could shut down again.

Top Republicans, including Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are eager to avoid that possibility. Senior Republicans are trying to initiate congressional investigations into Planned Parenthood and remove the issue from the funding process in order to respond to anger on the right but also ensure the government remains open.

READ: GOP feud jeopardizes Iran vote

Boehner is considering several options – attaching a Planned Parenthood defunding provision to a short-term spending bill, holding a separate vote on stripping all federal funds for Planned Parenthood, or moving a moratorium on taxpayer money going to the organization while Congress investigates the group’s practices. Republicans are also examining whether the fast-track process known as budget reconciliation could be a way to target Planned Parenthood funding without risking a government shutdown.

On Wednesday, Boehner told House GOP members that his top lieutenants would lead “listening sessions” to sound out rank-and-file members on the best legislative strategy to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood.

Blocking Iran deal

At a closed-door meeting, Republican leaders stressed they wanted the focus this week on efforts to block the Iran nuclear deal. A path forward on a spending bill, they said, would likely come together in the next week.

Boehner told reporters, “I have not made any decisions on when we would move” the short-term spending bill.

The Speaker brushed off a question about whether the threat from House conservatives to oust him complicated the path forward on a spending bill.

“It does not make it more difficult,” he said. I’ve got widespread support in the conference and I appreciate it.”

But Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who was invited to the Cruz meeting and supports an effort to remove Boehner from his speakership, said the current problem is of the leadership’s own making.

“We are here because our leadership put us here, because they subverted the appropriations process,” Massie said.

But New Jersey Republican Rep. Leonard Lance warned fellow GOP colleagues that attaching a defunding provision to a must-pass spending bill would threaten another government shutdown.

“My view is that we need to pay our troops on time. We need to provide Social Security on time. There are many essential functions of the federal government. I also think it’s bad politically,” Lance told CNN. “The White House will then concentrate on that, as opposed to the goal, which should be to defund Planned Parenthood.”

North Carolina GOP Rep. Bob Pittenger said he thought leaders should separate out the issue of Planned Parenthood, telling CNN, “I think we need to think strategically on how we can really attack this.”

He acknowledged that some conservatives wouldn’t vote for any funding bill that continued money for Planned Parenthood but said “we have to look at the realities - where is the money coming from. And the money is coming from Medicaid. That’s not going to be corrected through the type of vote.”