How a Fiscal Truce Rekindled Republicans’ Civil War

GOP leaders on Capitol Hill were looking for a fiscal truce.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 16, 2014— -- GOP leaders on Capitol Hill were looking for a fiscal truce. But they closed out the week having spurred another round in the Republican Party's long-running civil war.

House Speaker John Boehner was bearing the scars of the endless budget battles of the past three years when he announced that he would give up trying to get anything in return for an increase to the nation's borrowing limit.

He would be breaking his own "Boehner Rule," which demanded budget cuts equal to the size of any debt-limit increases. He would also be violating the more famous "Hastert Rule," dictating that only bills that have the support of a majority of the ruling party should come to the House floor.

"The fact is we'll let the Democrats put the votes up. We'll put a minimum number of votes up to get it passed," Boehner abruptly announced on Tuesday, after failing to get his conference to agree on something to ask for in return for a higher debt ceiling.

"This is a lost opportunity," Boehner added. "So I am disappointed to say the least."

With that, and with a fairly minimal amount of grumbling inside his own ranks, Boehner let Democrats provide the vast majority of the votes on the new debt limit.

The same formula would have worked more easily in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Not a single Republican would have to vote to authorize more debt.

That is, until Sen. Ted Cruz spoke up.

"I intend to insist that it be a 60-vote threshold instead," Cruz, R-Texas, told ABC News' Jeff Zeleny. "I think it's an irresponsible course of conduct, to keep giving President Obama a blank check."

With that, an attempt at buying budget peace -- allowing Republicans to focus on more politically fertile ground, like the Obama health care law -- blew up into a new round of open internal party warfare.

The impact will begin to be felt in the Republican primary season, just weeks away, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., among those directly impacted.

Cruz's threatened filibuster set up an extraordinary scene in the Senate. With lawmakers rushing to skip town before snowstorms descended on Washington, the vote had to be held open for 59 minutes as Republicans struggled to provide enough votes to join Democrats -- to give President Obama what he wanted all along.

In a break with tradition, Senate leaders cut off the microphones on the floor and didn't read the vote results until all was resolved.

Sixty-seven senators wound up voting to move forward on the bill. Only after the fact, when the roll-call sheet was released, would it become obvious that GOP senators including John McCain, Orrin Hatch, and John Cornyn flipped their "no" votes to join Democrats. McConnell also voted yes, to move the debt ceiling bill forward.

Republican lawmakers were steaming. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the entire exercise was an attempt by two senators -- presumably Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah -- to "raise a lot of money for their PACs and their campaigns."

"That's what this was all about, and everyone understood that," Corker told CNBC. "What is the endgame? And there was no endgame. … It's unfortunate that things are the way they are."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page was even harsher. It labeled Cruz "the minority maker," suggesting that he was trying to unseat colleagues by putting them in untenable political positions. (The editorial was tweeted out by, among others, Sen. McCain.)

"Mr. Cruz claims to be neutral in Senate primaries, but he knew exactly what he was doing," the editorial read. "Democrats beat the odds and retained their Senate majority in 2010 and 2012 in part because they stuck together. If Republicans fail again this November, a big reason will be their rump kamikaze caucus."

But the tea party movement is just as fired up. McConnell's tea party challenger, Matt Bevin, called it "financially reckless behavior."

Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of the tea party group FreedomWorks, called it a "defining vote" that will energize attempts to unseat McConnell and other Republicans who voted for a higher debt ceiling.

"This was a big deal," Kibbe told ABC News. "It fires up the base, it fires up activists, it fires up challengers who want to come to Washington and do the right thing."

Cruz himself seems to agree. He told conservative radio host Mark Levin that his colleagues were only angry at him because his maneuver stymied their attempts to tell "what they view as their foolish, gullible constituents back home they didn't do it."

"It's like they think the American people are just a bunch of rubes. That we don't remember what they say," Cruz said of his fellow Republican senators.

McConnell fired back on Friday, blaming the House's actions for limiting his choices to "a clean debt ceiling in the Senate, or default." He touted his own leadership in navigating the multiple fiscal confrontations of the past few years.

"I believe I have to act in the best interests of the country," McConnell told ABC News Louisville affiliate WHAS-TV. "And every time we've been confronted with a potential crisis, the guy you're looking at is the one who's stepped up to solve the problem."

That's not flying among tea partiers, though. To his donors and volunteers, Kibbe said, the vote "separated the good guys from the bad guys."

He said the fallout will carry beyond the primaries and even the general election. Pressure will build on members of the House and Senate to replace leaders -- such as Boehner and McConnell -- who caved on their initial demands, he said.

"We think we need to repopulate the Republican Party. We need to add more fiscal conservatives to the House and to the Senate -- and that leads to new leadership," Kibbe said.