WASHINGTON (AP) — Unhappy Republicans say Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has given President Barack Obama a present this holiday season — a gift certificate good for confirmation of 12 judicial appointments, not long after the voters had delivered the Democrats a lump of coal in midterm elections.
Cruz, a tea party favorite and potential 2016 presidential contender, disputed the claim through his spokesman on Monday.
But there was no dissent that Democrats, who must turn over power to Republicans in January, were in position to confirm not only the judges, but 11 other appointees before the Senate wraps up work for the year.
Among them are nominees that Republicans have sought to block for two relatively high-profile posts. They are Vivek Murthy, confirmed late in the day as surgeon general, and Sarah Saldana to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that will oversee the new administration policy on immigration that Cruz wants to defund.
At the root of the dispute lay a combination of the Senate's all-but-indecipherable rules, Cruz's attempt to use their murky corners to his advantage, and a bipartisan desire of many lawmakers to finish work for the year and return home for the holidays.
"My concern about the strategy he employed is that it has a result he didn't intend," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said of Cruz' maneuverings on Friday night, when he sought to force a vote on Obama's immigration policy. Among the consequences, she said, would be confirmation of a number of appointees who are controversial, including some to "lifetime judicial" posts.
Some officials said Cruz was personally informed by GOP aides that Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid was primed to take advantage if he went ahead.
Under the Senate's rules, Cruz's maneuver allowed Reid to begin the time-consuming process of confirming nominations on Saturday at noon — when lawmakers had been scheduled to be home for the weekend.
Had Cruz not made his move when he did, according to officials in both parties, Reid would have had to wait until Monday night — more than 48 hours later. Disgruntled Republicans said they felt confident that Reid's rank and file would not have been willing to remain in Washington in that case, and only four or five nominees would be confirmed instead of 23.
Other Republican lawmakers were far more forceful than Collins in their judgment of Cruz on Monday. They declined to speak on the record, possibly feeling they had already done so enough during the unplanned, 12-hour Senate session on Saturday.
"You should have an end goal in sight if you're going to do these types of things, and I don't see an end goal other than irritating a lot of people," Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said then.
Particularly galling to one Republican was that Reid was now in position to win confirmation even for judicial nominees who had been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee since the midterm elections in which Democrats lost power. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Saturday evening that was a violation of precedent "and of course, I object."
Others said Cruz' maneuvering was reminiscent of his role in a showdown two years ago that led to a partial government shutdown that most Republicans warned him would be a mistake.
Cruz's stated goal this time was to force a vote on Obama's new immigration policy, which is removing the threat of deportation for an estimated 5 million immigrants living in the country illegally.
He made his move Friday evening, after senators already had been informed they were free to go until Monday without fear of missing any votes. In response to Cruz, Reid ordered a Saturday session. Some senators who had left for home drove back hastily to avoid black marks on their voting records.
Far more important, in the minds of Republicans, was that Reid responded by launching an immediate effort to confirm the judicial and agency appointees, some of them long stalled. One of them, Christopher Smith, has been awaiting Senate confirmation to an Energy Department post since January.
Cruz's office swiftly disputed the claim. "Everyone knows Harry Reid planned to jam forward as many nominees as he could," Phil Novack, a spokesman for Cruz, said by email. "Unfortunately, there are many on both sides of the aisle who would rather stoke stories about Ted Cruz to distract from the more important debate over the President's unilateral action to grant amnesty."
It wasn't the only surprise Cruz delivered to incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In remarks on the Senate floor, he suggested the Republican leader and House Speaker John Boehner might not be entirely trustworthy when they promised to force a showdown with Obama over immigration early in the new year.
"We will learn soon enough if those statements are genuine and sincere. We will learn in just a few weeks," he said.
McConnell has yet to respond.