GRAPEVINE — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was ticking through his hopes for Congress this year in front of a Tea Party group here Saturday when one of his comments drew a sarcastic retort from the audience.

“I believe we will get tax reform done,” Cruz said.

“In my lifetime?” a man blurted out.

Cruz, not missing a beat, responded with his own question: “How old are you?”

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It was a lighthearted but revealing moment in a weekend where Cruz, in a pair of appearances before influential conservative groups, sought to explain — and, in some cases, distance himself from — congressional Republicans’ dismal track record under President Donald Trump. At times, it felt as if Cruz was discussing an institution he hasn’t been a part of for the last four years.

“Am I the only one here frustrated with Congress?” Cruz asked the audience at both events, each time receiving a loud chorus of “no”s in return.

"Look, we got a unique opportunity,” Cruz said Friday night in Tyler, addressing Grassroots America We the People. “We have a Republican Congress, Republican heads of every agency, Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and we ain't doing diddly squat." 

A day later in Grapevine, where he was talking to the NE Tarrant Tea Party, Cruz continued to pan Congress' performance as he segued from a discussion of the recent hurricanes that have struck Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

"Shifting from one disaster to another," Cruz said, "let's talk about Congress." 

Cruz, of course, has grown accustomed to railing against Congress — both Democrats and Republicans — since he arrived in the Senate four years ago at the start of President Barack Obama's second term. But he found himself in a different position this weekend: seeking to channel his core supporters’ rage at congressional inaction under a Republican president, despite his efforts to be a team player in the opening several months of the Trump era.

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“As frustrated as y’all are, I’m sitting there everyday!” Cruz said in Grapevine. “I’m banging my head into this everyday.” 

The most glaring shortcoming of GOP lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, has been their failure to repeal Obama's 2010 health care law, a promise central to Cruz's insurgent 2012 campaign, his time in the upper chamber and his unsuccessful 2016 presidential bid. Cruz voted for the Senate repeal plan that fell one vote of short passing earlier this year but had not been a "yes" yet on another, last-ditch proposal when it flamed out last week.

In Grapevine, when asked about the health care debacle, Cruz recalled how he had to immediately leave the Senate floor when the first bill failed, concerned he would say something inappropriate if he stuck around. Regarding the second bill, Cruz acknowledged having reservations with it but contended he wasn’t decisive in killing it. “Ultimately what happened is the votes collapsed elsewhere,” Cruz said.

Cruz made the case that he is still seeking to be a constructive force on Obamacare repeal, revealing that he's reconvening next week with a working group on the issue that he first assembled earlier this year. The group plans to "see if we can put together a bill building from the bottom up that will get 50 votes," Cruz said, offering no promise of success.

Cruz’s appearance Saturday before the NE Tarrant Tea Party was particularly fraught with frustration. A few audience members repeatedly interrupted Cruz’s remarks to voice dissatisfaction with Republicans in Congress being less than supportive of Trump’s agenda — including a woman who repeatedly rose to her feet to interrogate Cruz while he was already speaking. “Ma’am, you are preaching to the choir,” Cruz replied.

Among the audience-submitted questions that Cruz fielded: Is funding for Trump’s proposed border wall being delayed by Republicans? How can Republicans get rid of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell? Does Cruz, like Trump, support ending the filibuster rule, which requires most legislation to draw 60 votes out of the 100-member U.S. Senate rather than a simple majority?  

On border wall funding, Cruz said Republicans are not delaying it — but most “aren’t willing to fight for it,” including in the Trump administration. On McConnell’s future, Cruz lamented that the “simple reality is Republican Senators are with him,” ensuring he’ll remain majority leader. And on the filibuster rule, Cruz called for an end to it, acknowledging it is an “issue on which I’ve changed my mind over the last five years.”

The last question Cruz received: “Is there hope?” 

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“Yes,” Cruz said. “I believe that with all my heart.”

In Tyler a day earlier, Cruz appeared at a dinner in honor of the Texas Freedom Caucus, the 12-member conservative bloc in the state House that formed earlier this year. Lavishing praise on the legislators, Cruz continued to vent to the audience about Congress, telling them, “I cannot tell you how much I wish we can take the Freedom Caucus and replace the United States Senate."

Cruz is up for re-election in 2018, and while he does not have a serious primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, has drawn packed rooms at campaign stops around the state in his bid to unseat Cruz next November. At both events this weekend, Cruz has been using dramatic language to warn about the consequences for Republicans if they don’t have results to show for their control of Congress and the White House. Addressing the NE Tarrant Tea Party, Cruz predicted a “bloodbath” for Republicans in 2018 if all they’ve done is overseen a “massive bailout for insurance companies and a massive amnesty package” — a reference to the six-month deadline Trump gave Congress earlier this month to replace DACA, the Obama-era program that shields young undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Asked by a reporter Friday if he believes he personally deserves re-election even if he has not made good on his longtime promise to repeal Obamacare, Cruz did not hesitate to answer.

“Yes," he said. "In my experience, Texans understand that I’m leading the fight to get this done. And Texans, like voters all over the country, are intensely frustrated at politicians who campaign saying one thing and then vote precisely the opposite when they get to Washington."

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • All but one of the 38 Texans in Congress are up for re-election next year. Two have already said they are giving up their seats. But many in Washington are bracing for a wave of Congressional retirements in the coming weeks. [Full story]

  • U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said last week that he is endorsing his fellow Texan, Ted Cruz, for re-election in 2018. [Full story]

  • On the same day earlier this month, both Cruz and U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, outlined their visions for overhauling the tax code. [Full story]

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