The bitter budget fight in Congress that shuttered the U.S. government this month was a success for conservatives even though various polls indicate it damaged them politically, Republican Senator Ted Cruz said on Thursday.
Mr. Cruz – a ringleader of conservative Republicans' push to hold up government funding to try to weaken Democratic President Barack Obama's health-care law – told Reuters that although the effort did not yield changes to Obamacare, it did ignite Tea Party grassroots activists and intensify scrutiny of the law.
An unapologetic Mr. Cruz, whose tactics in targeting Obamacare drew heavy criticism from Democrats and some fellow Republicans, defended his actions and vowed to keep the debate over the health-care law front and centre in the next round of budget battles early next year.
"I think we accomplished a great deal. We saw the grassroots become energized, we saw the House of Representatives listen to the people. That's a powerful demonstration of what can happen," the freshman senator said.
Mr. Cruz praised Tea Party conservatives who have challenged the Republican "establishment," and said some Senate Republicans who refused to back him during the shutdown fight could face consequences at the ballot box in 2014. The Tea Party advocates for small government and low taxes.
His words echoed those of groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), a Tea Party-backed organization that has signalled it will target incumbents including Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate. Mr. McConnell helped to broker the deal that ended the shutdown without significant changes to Obamacare.
The SCF has announced that it will support Mr. McConnell's Tea Party-aligned challenger in the Republican primary, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin.
Even as he seemed to encourage such challenges to his own party's leadership in the Senate, Mr. Cruz said it was not likely that he would campaign in any Republican Senate primaries with incumbents next year.
Opinion polls indicate that Americans blame Republicans more than Democrats or Mr. Obama for the unpopular 16-day shutdown and near-default by the U.S. government.
Approval ratings for the party have plunged heading into an election year in which Republicans will try to gain a net of six seats to take over the Democrat-led Senate, while trying to keep Democrats from gaining a net of 17 seats to take over the House.
Mr. Cruz said on Thursday the polls overstated Americans' dissatisfaction with Republicans during the shutdown fight.
"The most important thing this battle was about was not Obamacare. It wasn't even the federal budget. It was trying to make D.C. listen, trying to change the culture," Mr. Cruz said. "Unfortunately, the Senate didn't listen this time. But ultimately I hope they will."
Mr. Cruz, who sidestepped a question about whether he might run for president in 2016, has been criticized for pushing Republicans into an unwinnable confrontation with Mr. Obama over the health-care law, the President's signature domestic achievement.
The deal approved by Congress this month postponed the next budget fight until early next year. But Mr. Cruz said he had not decided which tactics or strategies he would use in battling Obamacare in the months ahead.
"There will be plenty of time between now and then to talk about specific strategic tactical steps," Mr. Cruz said.
He predicted that Obamacare would continue to be a significant issue through the 2014 elections.
Mr. Cruz suggested he sympathizes with the Tea Party challengers because of his own beginning in national politics last year – as an underdog Senate candidate who ran a grassroots campaign and defeated Texas' establishment-backed lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, in the Republican primary.
Mr. Cruz's hard-charging, high-profile style has proven highly divisive in the typically genteel Senate, alienating even some fellow Republicans who have called him a bully with an oversized appetite for publicity.
He acknowledged the criticism and said the Tea Party's impact on American politics is "terrifying" to many Washington politicians.