WASHINGTON (AP) — Some tried yelling. Others tried shaming. But by the time tea party freshmen Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee spoke on the chamber floor again Friday, other Republican senators had settled on ignoring them.
Zero GOP senators showed up to support the pair's encore to Cruz's 21-hour filibuster — a 30-minute appeal to prohibit the Senate from voting on whether to defund President Barack Obama's health care law and keep the government open. Only one Democrat attended, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, to make sure there wasn't any procedural funny business from the newcomers whose orations had become a tea party infomercial.
Only 17 of the GOP's other 44 senators joined Cruz and Lee in trying to stop the Senate. Later, Senate Democrats used their majority to strip the "Obamacare" language from a temporary spending bill, pass a new version of it and send it to the Republican-controlled House.
Thus ended another episode of congressional reality TV, a narrative in which breakout stars Cruz and Lee claimed to represent regular Americans standing up to the political establishment.
The real reality: Their performance was evidence of a fierce battle for control of the Republican Party, and one with high stakes. If Congress doesn't agree on a budget by midnight Monday, the government shuts down. That could mean terrible consequences for millions of Americans and the economy.
"Knock it off," Obama suggested Friday, as the action moved from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's turf back to the House.
What seemed like a last whiff of bipartisan agreement was this: The debate over the budget is an inappropriate battlefield for the war over Obamacare. Other senators in both parties resented Cruz and Lee for making the tradition-bound club a player in their C-SPAN campaign to fire up the Tea Party.
"My two colleagues, who I respect, have sent out emails around the world and turned this into a show," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chided in traditional Senate style. "And that is taking priority over getting legislation back to the House so they can take action before the country's government shuts down."
Cruz, an Ivy League-educated former Texas solicitor general, did not deny the charge and turned it back on the Democratic majority leader.
"We are not going to be complicit in giving Harry Reid the ability to fund Obamacare," he said.
No Republican wanted to appear supportive of Obamacare, but by Friday most had ceased acknowledging Cruz and Utah's Lee. Instead, they asserted that all Republicans oppose Obamacare. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota suggested that the GOP split made public was simply a disagreement over tactics.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who had "acknowledged" Cruz's 21-hours of talk a day earlier, acted as if it had never happened. Republicans want Obamacare repealed, the Kentucky Republican said on the Senate floor.
"That's the goal of every member on this side," McConnell said, closing one of the uglier debates in the chamber's history. "We're united."
Against Obamacare, yes. But not, so far, on how to keep the government running next week. House Speaker John Boehner, the nation's highest-ranking Republican, was struggling to create a budget agreement that unites Republicans in his chamber.
Late Friday, Cruz and Lee told reporters they had already had "numerous conversations with numerous members of the House."