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Cruz Puts Senate GOP Leader in a Jam Over Debt Ceiling

Image: Mitch McConnell

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, following a Republican policy lunch. Susan Walsh / AP

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is taking another pound of flesh from his own party's establishment -- and in particular, the leader of the GOP in the Senate.

In a nail-biter of a vote Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was a surprise "yes" vote for a bill to raise the debt limit without any additional provisions attached.

The Kentucky lawmaker's vote is sure to fuel criticism from critics to his right, who say Republicans didn't fight hard enough to attach spending reductions to the must-pass debt limit hike.

Worse yet for McConnell: he is facing a challenge from Tea Party-backed Matt Bevin, a millionaire businessman who's attacking the minority leader as a creature of Washington.

So why did he vote for a bill that's could be considered politically poisonous? Because Cruz had rebuffed attempts to pass the debt ceiling bill on a simple majority vote -- a procedure that would have seen the chamber's 55 Democrats lifting the ceiling without GOP support.

McConnell knew the filibuster was coming. On Tuesday, Cruz told McConnell in the Republican conference's lunch meeting that he wanted to filibuster the debt ceiling bill -- an encounter that aides familiar with the conversation described as particularly contentious.

But as the minutes ticked by Wednesday afternoon and only three Republicans had voted to break Cruz's filibuster of a bill to lift the debt limit, McConnell and Minority Whip John Cornyn huddled together on the Senate floor, watching over the vote count.

Cruz sat by himself, reading his smartphone, occasionally standing up to check the vote count list himself. An aide later said Cruz didn't know the vote would be so close.

Finally, after the vote had been held open for far longer than originally planned, McConnell and Cornyn stepped forward together and voted "yes."

Over the next half an hour, Republicans continued hushed conversations on the floor. Eventually, a second group of senators emerged from the Republican cloakroom at the back of the chamber: Sens. John McCain, Jeff Flake, and John Thune. All walked forward and voted "yes."

In the end -- after the vote stood open for nearly an hour -- 11 other Republicans joined McConnell in voting to lift the debt ceiling for a year without attaching any provisions to bring down the debt or deficit.

Afterward, GOP senators who voted with him described the move as courageous and necessary.

"He knows that he's the leader and it was up to him to cast the right vote," McCain said after the vote -- and after joking that he had voted in favor of the bill "after my shoulder was dislocated."

"To be a leader you have to do very hard things," said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., who identified himself as the first Republican to vote "yes."

Of Cruz, Johanns said: "He's new here."

Cruz, meanwhile, was defiant when he spoke to reporters after the vote.

"It should have been an easy vote," he said, derisively calling the bill a victory for the "Washington establishment."

Asked whether he thought McConnell should be replaced as the Republican leader in the Senate, Cruz said: "That is ultimately a decision, in the first instance, for the voters of Kentucky to make."