WASHINGTON >> Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was just getting going, summoning his down-home artillery from the Senate floor — the faith-flecked tales, the weathered statesman’s gaze, the theatrical pauses deployed not so long ago before caucus-inclined Iowans.
“I rise today in support of heroes,” Cruz said sternly, “in support of unity and in support of love and compassion.”
These are not the three nouns most often associated with Cruz’s congressional life, which has included, among other stands, a vote against a relief measure for storm victims in New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy.
But the forecast has changed. This week, it was time for Cruz, once perhaps the Capitol’s least compromising conservative, to push a massive federal aid package for his own state.
As he prepares for a re-election race next year, Cruz is facing perhaps his most meaningful challenge yet: helping to see that millions of constituents — in his hometown, Houston, and beyond — get the help they need in the costly years ahead. He is advocating billions in aid after a Senate career often focused on cutting spending and building a national following as an avatar of unbending dogma.
It was here that Cruz, 46, rocketed to conservative stardom in 2013 enshrining a reading of “Green Eggs and Ham” into the official record during a 21-hour talk-a-thon that protested the Affordable Care Act and accomplished nothing in particular.
It was here, in 2015, where he called his majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a liar, in a remarkable breach of Senate decorum that encapsulated his relationship with many fellow Republicans.
And it was here where another fellow Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joked that any homicide committed against Cruz would go unpunished, so long as the other 99 senators filled the jury pool.
Through less than five years in the body — before a presidential run that few thought would last so long and after a humbling defeat that has spawned a kinder, gentler “Cruz 2.0,” as his staff frames it — Cruz has undergone a handful of evolutions.
He has long positioned himself, improbably, as the capital’s consummate outsider, despite a résumé that tickles all corners of the Washington establishment: Princeton, Harvard, Supreme Court clerk, the George W. Bush campaign, the George W. Bush administration.
He is President Donald Trump’s erstwhile nemesis — “Lyin’ Ted!” on the 2016 presidential primary campaign trail — who has become one of the White House’s most reliable partners in Congress.
Now, Cruz has been compelled again to reach for a different gear.
He has toured flood zones with local officials (“We saw an alligator swimming across Clay Road”), removed drywall from a damaged home with his family (“Caroline, the 9-year-old, we discovered, can wield a mean hammer”), greeted Coast Guard heroes with dazzling torsos.
“Almost every one of them ripped,” he marveled on the Senate floor, holding for dramatic pauses pregnant enough to require bed rest. “These are guys that know their way around a weight room.”
He has served chili to the suddenly homeless inside a Houston convention center, wearing a hairnet that aides quickly insisted he cover with a baseball cap. He has embraced congregants at a black church in Port Arthur. He has hugged liberally.
But Cruz’s turn as a unifier has been complicated, as ever, by a yearslong pursuit of conservative purity. After Hurricane Sandy lashed New York and New Jersey in 2012, Cruz joined more than 20 of his Texas colleagues, including Sen. John Cornyn, in opposing a more than $50 billion relief package, arguing that the bill was loaded with projects unrelated to the region’s recovery.
Fact checkers have generally sided against Cruz’s suggestion that a large majority of the Sandy relief bill was directed at nonstorm efforts. And lawmakers in the Northeast, most notably Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a fellow Republican, have taken particular delight in accusing Cruz of hypocrisy.
“Senator Cruz was playing politics in 2012, trying to make himself look like the biggest conservative in the world,” Christie told CNN last week. It was “disgusting,” he added, to see Cruz “in a recovery center with victims standing behind him as a backdrop.”
In an interview Sept. 6, Cruz said he was “quite confident that nobody in Texas gives a flip what Chris Christie has to say.”
“And it seems not many people in New Jersey do either,” he added, appearing to allude to Christie’s anemic approval ratings. “Chris should go back to the beach.”
Cruz and his advisers are acutely aware that his job — and the substance of his re-election campaign against Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, from El Paso — changed the moment Hurricane Harvey made landfall, elevating constituent services well above any national aspirations, even if Cruz retains an ambition to seek the presidency again.
“The Number 1 path to re-elect is doing a good job,” said Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager in his presidential run and a top adviser on his upcoming race.
Cruz seems certain that the storm fallout will not test the bounds of his conservative orthodoxy, recalling in the interview that constituents had made a point of requesting federal assistance unencumbered by Washington pork.
(An aide, walking with him in the Senate basement, quickly produced a handwritten note, which Cruz said came from a pastor at the Port Arthur church, asking that funding “be allocated immediately and not have other projects be attached.”)
As Cruz spoke, though, Trump was striking a deal with Democrats tying Harvey relief to a debt ceiling increase and a stopgap spending measure — the sort of arrangement the senator would have abhorred under any other circumstances.
He did not seem to relish it this week, either, even as he announced his support.
“I would have much preferred a clean Harvey relief bill,” he said, calling it “unfortunate” that the White House and congressional leaders had decided otherwise.
It was the latest twitch in a president-senator relationship bizarre even by the standards of Trump’s Washington. For Cruz skeptics in the Capitol, and there remain many, his support for Trump since the election is held up as evidence of hollow principles.
In a final plea to voters last year in Indiana, hours before dropping out of the race, Cruz appraised Trump as a “pathological liar” divorced from basic morality, suggesting that with a Trump primary victory that night, “this country could well plunge into the abyss.”
For months after that, he refused to endorse a prospective Abyss administration, despite considerable pressure from many of his own voters. Speaking in July 2016at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Cruz pointedly invited conservatives to “vote your conscience,” leaving the stage to ferocious boos.
But by September, as the presidential race seemed to tighten and Cruz’s team feared attracting blame for a narrow Hillary Clinton victory, Cruz endorsed his former rival anyway.
The months since have been an exercise in senatorial rebranding.
Cruz has earned praise from several lawmakers as an unlikely consensus builder among hard-right and moderate Republicans as the party sought (and, at least initially, failed) to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. He has dined with colleagues from across the Senate majority.
He has moved even McConnell to lurch toward a compliment.
“From working to find a path forward to repeal and replace Obamacare with common-sense market reforms to responding to one of the worst disasters Texas has seen, Ted’s been a constructive player trying to get results,” McConnell said in a statement Thursday.
Others are still inclined to hedge on Cruz’s merits.
Asked last month whether Cruz had returned to the Senate a changed man after his presidential campaign, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., allowed that “some people might say that.”
Asked if he counted himself among those “some people,” Wicker repeated himself.
Democrats can be less subtle. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota devoted a full chapter of his recent book to Cruz, titling the section “Sophistry.”
“Here’s the thing you have to understand about Ted Cruz,” Franken writes. “I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.”