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Visions of ’16 propel Cruz’s anti-‘Obamacare’ theatrics

WASHINGTON – Sen. Ted Cruz is smack in the middle of the No. 1 political story in the country, has energized his party’s conservative base and has become the most visible 2016 Republican presidential wannabe in an early – and crowded – field.

Politicians live for these kinds of moments.

A senator for not yet even a year, the Texas Republican is at the epicenter of the face-off between his party and the Democrats that may well lead to a government shutdown Tuesday.

Elected in November in his first bid for office, he started an unlikely crusade this summer to persuade House Republicans to vote to defund the Affordable Care Act – “Obamacare” – which they did last week.

Now, Cruz is the Senate point man in a long-shot but symbolic effort for tea party conservatives to champion a House bill that pairs a temporary funding of the federal government past the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year with a defunding of the health care law.

“He’s not trying to win,” said Bill Miller, an Austin, Texas-based political consultant with both Republican and Democratic clients, commenting on Cruz’s fight against the health care law. “He’s trying to make a statement. He’s doing this for the attention.”

However, Cruz’s own party’s Senate leadership is not onboard with his strategy. More mainstream Republican conservatives have basically labeled it a fool’s errand because it has virtually no chance of success and could very well lead to more bad press and public disfavor for the GOP, especially if a compromise to fund the government proves elusive.

Indeed, “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace said that “top Republicans” had sent him opposition research “to hammer Cruz” during their televised interview.

Tuesday, Cruz took to the Senate floor in what he said was a filibuster that would last all night, talking against the Affordable Care Act with like-minded GOP conservative Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky. “I intend to speak until I am no longer able to stand,” Cruz said as he began just before 2:41 p.m. EDT.

He appeared to be beginning a talkathon to prevent a vote, a time-honored piece of Capitol Hill theater. But in reality, Senate procedures were already in place for a preliminary vote to be held this morning.

Repeatedly, Cruz said that people were complaining about the president’s signature health care law but that “no one in D.C. is listening.” At one point, he said to a largely empty Senate chamber, save for a smattering of tourists in the visitors gallery, “Most Americans could not give a flying flick about what goes on in Washington.”

Cruz’s legislative tactics have a Rube Goldberg-esque quality. His ploy is to get Senate Republicans to vote against the House bill today – the one that funds government and defunds the health care law – on a procedural motion and then band together to oppose a likely Democratic amendment to strip the health care measure from the bill, which would leave only a bill to temporarily fund the government.

The freshman lawmaker, who angered House Republicans last week by publicly conceding a loss in the Democratic-controlled Senate, is looking beyond this week’s drama.

“Sen. Cruz clearly sees himself as a leader of the conservative movement, which is not quite the same as a leader of the Republican Party,” said Bill Schneider, a senior fellow at Third Way, a centrist think tank in Washington. “He is cultivating a following among grass-roots conservatives. That kind of following could be useful for a presidential campaign.”

Sarah Palin, a Cruz mentor and tea party favorite who was the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 2008, wrote in an op-ed article on a conservative website last week that it was time for “the Senate to put itself on Cruz Control.”