WASHINGTON – Five years ago, Ted Cruz was running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Texas. One of his biggest talking points: repealing President Obama's 2010 health care law.
"Now is not a time for conciliation," he said at the time. "The Senate will be the battleground on Obamacare, and I intend to lead the fight to repeal every word of it."
Yet as U.S. Senate Republicans hash out how to unwind Obamacare behind closed doors, the world is not so black and white anymore for the junior senator from Texas, who is playing a central role in those negotiations that are virtually certain not to lead to a measure that repeals every word of Obamacare.
But then again, Cruz argued in an interview with the Texas Tribune Monday, the concepts of repeal and compromise are not mutually exclusive.
"Of course I'll compromise, if — and the 'if' is critical — we're moving in the right direction, if we are expanding freedom, if we are improving economic growth, if we are defending our nation," he said.
Cruz even said he was pleased that his fellow Republican senators were not "going out and drawing lines in the sand," a bit of a metaphorical irony as on both the Senate floor and on the presidential campaign trail, he frequently invoked William Barrett Travis who, as commander of the Alamo, once literally drew a line in the sand.
In tone, it's a far cry from his days as the rebellious conservative Senate candidate in 2012 or even the way he was often portrayed in his first years in the Senate, as he played a key role in a 16-day government shutdown over stripping funding for Obamacare in 2013.
Cruz insists there is no change in his mindset.
"Many in the press have had to caricature that as saying, 'You have said you will never compromise,'" he said. "A person who never said that is me."
And to him, not all compromises are equal.
"I'm not interested in a compromise that makes the problem worse," Cruz said.
But beyond the strategic differences, Cruz paints a picture that he is now functioning as a cohesive force among Republicans. For Cruz to be speaking this way is no small matter. Over his first four years as a senator, he singled himself out as an immovable bulwark against moderates in his own party. That helped sour relationships with many of his fellow Republicans.
A little over a year ago, as Cruz and Donald Trump were the leading candidates in the hunt for the GOP presidential nominations, Republican leaders opted to not put up a fight against the unpredictable real estate mogul rather than back Cruz's bid.
At the time, some operatives suggested Cruz should return to the Senate and focus on repairing relationships in the same way that U.S. Sen. John McCain did after he lost the GOP nod to President George W. Bush in 2000. And at least on health care, Cruz appears to be doing just that.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a senior Republican from Tennessee, turned out to be the emissary and pulled Cruz into working on a repeal bill. Cruz is in deep enough in the negotiations that he has repeatedly hosted fellow Republicans in his own conference room to build the foundation for a deal.
Cruz expresses mystification that those meetings flew under the radar as long as they did.
"One of the most amazing things is, we met for over a month, and there were no leaks," he said. "Not a single story appeared anywhere."
"In Washington, that's just weird," he added.
In order to get a bill through the Senate, GOP leaders must secure the support of at least 50 of the chamber's 52 Republicans, and then count on Vice President Mike Pence to cast the tie-breaking vote. Those working on the issue are trying to balance the demands of the chamber's most conservative members with moderates and senators from states the rely heavily on Medicaid funding.
Amid all of this, some strategic differences remain between Cruz and leadership, some of whom have said the aim is to get a bill through the Senate before the coming July 4 recess.
"From the outset of meetings of the working group, we said that we were not going to set any artificial deadlines," he said. "The House did that, and it proved to be a mistake."
"I think we should keep working until we reach agreement, and when we reach an agreement we should vote on it," he added. "However long that takes — it shouldn't be driven by an arbitrary date on the calendar."
But on another front, Cruz is echoing the Senate GOP's leadership.
While Democrats are howling over rumors that Republicans will move a bill to the Senate floor as soon as a deal is cut — bypassing committee hearings and public airings — Cruz, as well as party leaders, argue that such public meetings are not necessary because the debate already took place in the previous elections.
"No issue in modern times has been more debated in politics than Obamacare," he said. "Obamacare has been front and center in election after election after election."
He further argued that public debate among senators, particularly on television, would be counterproductive to building a coalition.
"I don't think it would be productive if we're trying to get 50 of 52 senators on the same page to have every discussion in front of the TV cameras," he said. "Inevitably, that would lead to posturing, that would lead ... to people becoming dug in. It would it impossible for anyone to offer any sort of concession or compromise."
But perhaps the clearest sign of Cruz's changed status among his fellow Republicans in the Senate is his relationship with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Cruz dedicated an entire chapter of his memoir to criticizing McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and went so far as to once call him a liar on the Senate floor.
These days, he says they are thick as thieves.
"It's been very productive. He and I have been working together closely," Cruz said. "Obviously, he and I have differed in the past, but today, I believe he wants to get this done. He wants to accomplish this promise."
"And I know that I want to get this done, and so we are working collaboratively to accomplish a shared goal."
The irony of all of this is that in his early years, Cruz was the thorn in the side of Senate GOP leadership. Frequently, he was an unpredictable vote and was capable of pulling his support for major legislation on short notice.
Now, he is the one counting heads.
"If we lose three Republicans, we're done," he said.
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