WASHINGTON — He’s not your usual newbie senator. After just weeks on the job, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has managed to ruffle feathers on both sides of the aisle with his aggressive questioning of former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., the Obama administration’s nominee for defense secretary. Some critics said it contained echoes of the McCarthy era.
“Cruz is somebody who doesn’t much care. He breaks crockery, crosses lines of propriety and pisses off colleagues,” said Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute.
The Senate may vote on Hagel’s nomination by Wednesday. While it appears that the administration has enough votes to win confirmation, Cruz played a major role in stalling it, requiring a Senate vote of 60 for confirmation instead of a simple majority of 51.
But the Texan, a tea party favorite who in his first bid for elected office beat the Republican establishment candidate, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, in November, is doing exactly, he says, what he set out to do: change Washington.
“I don’t think comity means avoiding the truth,” Cruz told McClatchy Newspapers in response to emailed questions. “It would have been very easy to shy away from hard questions, because in asking them, it was not surprising that would provoke the wrath and criticism of the defenders of Chuck Hagel. But I don’t think that would be doing my job, to fear the reaction of the Obama administration.”
Last week in Texas, Cruz signaled his support of the Second Amendment in the face of calls for gun control by visiting a gun manufacturer.
“In Washington there is no liberty that is more in the target right now than the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms,” he told McClatchy.
Cruz challenged Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, on his letters to major banks asking them to stop supporting gun manufacturers. Cruz said the mayor was bullying the banks, and he invited them to invest in Texas.
Cruz’s supporters are thrilled with his aggressive style and want him to continue, possibly all the way to the White House.
“He’s not going to be ignored,” said Bill Miller, an Austin-based political consultant who advises candidates in both parties. “He’s resonating with the conservatives. He’s grabbing the conservative mantle and he’s running with it.”
Already, Cruz has voted no on a number of high-profile issues, including raising the debt ceiling, reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act and sending federal aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy. He was one of only three senators to vote against the nomination of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to be secretary of state.
Cruz, a Cuban-American born in Canada, is an attorney from Houston who filled the seat that Republican former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison held for nearly a quarter of a century. The 42-year old Harvard University Law School graduate was a clerk to former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and served as the solicitor general of Texas. He’s argued before the high court nine times.
“There’s a conservative electorate out there looking for a lawmaker to come to Washington and be aggressive,” said Nathan Gonzales, the deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan political tip sheet.
Hagel’s nomination to take over the Pentagon drew criticism from his own party, and even Republican former colleagues. They claimed that he wasn’t sufficiently supportive of Israel and opposed the Iraq War. During his nomination hearing and the party-line vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee, Cruz acted like the prosecutor he once was. In a break with Senate etiquette, he brought in audiovisual exhibits to make his case.
But it was his suggestion, offered without any evidence, during the committee vote that foreign governments such as Iran and North Korea were supportive of Hagel and may have paid him for speeches since he retired from the Senate in 2008 that provoked fireworks.
“I would suggest to you that to my knowledge, that is unprecedented: to see a foreign nation like Iran publicly celebrating a nomination,” Cruz said.
If Hagel is confirmed, he said, “it will make military conflict in the next four years substantially more likely, because in my view Chuck Hagel’s being confirmed will only encourage the nation of Iran to continue and accelerate its program to develop nuclear weapons capacity.”
He also questioned why Hagel wouldn’t identify all the sources of his funds, though the committee’s chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the former Nebraska senator had testified that he didn’t receive any monies from foreign sources.
“It is at a minimum relevant to know if that $200,000 that he deposited in his bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea,” Cruz said, “and I have no evidence to suggest that it is or isn’t, but his statement was that he could not even tell this committee that $200,000 did not come directly from a foreign government.”
“Sen. Cruz has gone over the line,” an angry Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said during the session. “He basically has impugned the patriotism of the nominee.”
Even Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who’d sharply questioned Hagel during his nomination hearing, defended his former colleague in the face of Cruz’s attack.
“I just want to make it clear Sen. Hagel is an honorable man,” said McCain, who, like Hagel, is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. “He served his country. And no one on this committee at any time should impugn his character or his integrity.”
Ornstein called Cruz’s attempt to link Hagel to anti-U.S. governments a “McCarthy-esque” echo of the era when then-Sen. Joseph McCarthy led anti-communist witch-hunts in the 1950s, fueled by innuendo that destroyed many government and Hollywood careers.
Cruz’s allies don’t see a problem.
“A lot of us who were big supporters of Ted Cruz are kind of shaking our heads about this so-called controversy,” said Jeff Judson, a Texas tea party member and a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, an advocacy group for free-market and anti-regulatory policies. “His supporters in Texas are saying this is an example of what’s wrong with Washington.”