HOUSTON — The last time Ted Cruz addressed this well-heeled crowd, it was a few weeks after a federal government shutdown that solidified the senator's reputation as a disruptive, unapologetic freshman.
With another season of congressional tumult in store — and the Texas Republican expected to play starring role in it — it's safe to say not much has changed. Except one thing: Cruz is now running for president, and while his speech to the city's business elite here Tuesday was not technically a campaign event, it was fraught with implications for a 2016 race that could shift next month from the cornfields of Iowa to the halls of Congress.
For the buttoned-up crowd at the Greater Houston Partnership's annual State of the Senate luncheon, Cruz cooled down some of his usual red-meat rhetoric but nonetheless kept the focus on two issues ubiquitous on the campaign trail: President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran and Planned Parenthood. Cruz forecasted that stopping the nuclear agreement and defunding the women's health organization are "likely to be major battles" when lawmakers return to Capitol Hill next week, making no bones about the potential for high-stakes showdowns.
Democrats, he said, believe "if you don't get the money to Planned Parenthood, we will block funding for the rest of the government. I think that's a profoundly irresponsible position, but I think that is also a position that is worthy of public debate."
The crowd was mostly silent as Cruz delivered his roughly 40-minute speech, only offering substantial applause when he waded into local issues, like when he lamented how the Port of Houston collects taxes meant for upkeep but ultimately sees a fraction of the revenue. "The money that goes into the fund from the Port of Houston should be returned to maintaining and dredging the Port of Houston," Cruz said, asking the audience to imagine how much more business could be generated if the port was in better shape.
Asked after his speech if he has made inroads with the kinds of groups like the one he addressed here — generally more moderate Republicans who were not particularly supportive of his insurgent Senate run against former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst — Cruz suggested the proof was in the fundraising for his 2016 bid.
"We've got incredible support in the state of Texas and especially here in the city of Houston. Houston is my hometown. The business community has been unbelievably supportive of our presidential campaign," Cruz told reporters, noting his campaign has reported raising more money from Texas — $6.1 million — than any other candidate. "In second place was Jeb Bush with $1.2 million, so we raised nearly six times what Jeb Bush did from the state of Texas. That is gratifying."
While Cruz touched on a wide range of topics here, he spoke perhaps most at length about Obama's agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions, mixing elements of his stump speech with a more substantive critique of the deal. The senator most colorfully objected to the stipulation that lets Iranians "inspect themselves" for compliance with the pact, deploying an impression of the gangster protagonist in the movie Scarface to drive home his point.
"This is the equivalent of law enforcement picking up the phone and calling Tony Montana and saying, 'Hey, Tony, you got any drugs?' 'I don't got no drugs.' 'Thank you, Tony,'" Cruz said, drawing scattered laughter. "That is the essentially the Iranian nuclear inspection."
On Planned Parenthood, Cruz sought to get out in front of another narrative pinning congressional disarray on him, like in the aftermath of a standoff he led against the Affordable Care Act in the run-up to the 2013 shutdown. Some Republicans are eager to cut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood following a string of undercover videos questioning the group's business practices. The videos, which Planned Parenthood says were deceptively edited, are now the subject of investigations in Washington and across the country.
"You will see in the news, a number of folks in the media characterizing this as, quote, Republicans threatening to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood," Cruz said. "I want to point out to each of you that any time the media says that, they are not accurately reporting what is going on."
"The reason anyone is talking about a government shutdown is President Obama and a number of Senate Democrats are threatening that if Congress chooses not to fund Planned Parenthood, even during ... multiple criminal investigations, that they will block and the president will veto funding for the rest of the government in order to try to force through funding for Planned Parenthood," Cruz added. "But it shouldn't be lost on anyone who it is that is threatening a government shutdown."
Cruz was introduced by his wife, Heidi, a managing director at Goldman Sachs on leave to help with his 2016 campaign. She serves on the executive committee of the Greater Houston Partnership, whose leadership held a roundtable with Cruz before his speech. Cruz's campaign was not discussed during the roundtable, a spokeswoman for the group said.
Before speaking, Cruz asked for a moment of silence for Darren Goforth, the Harris County sheriff's deputy gunned down Friday at a Houston gas station. Speaking with reporters after his remarks, Cruz reiterated criticism that the ambush death was a "direct manifestation of the harsh rhetoric and vilification of police officers, law enforcement, that sadly has come all the way from the top." Cruz held firm when pressed about how he could reach that conclusion given how little is known about the suspect's motives at this point.
"Rhetoric and language has consequences," the senator told reporters. "It has consequences, and we are seeing over and over again police officers targeted, and the president has a powerful bully pulpit, and that bully pulpit is not used to stand with the men and women of law enforcement."
Disclosure: The Greater Houston Partnership and Planned Parenthood were corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune in 2011. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.