WASHINGTON — While Sen. Ted Cruz tries to spin the 16-day government shutdown as a moral victory for him and his conservative followers, a seething, bitter anger has been building among the House Republicans who followed him into the fight.
GOP lawmakers had hoped to avoid a shutdown and use the funding fight to squeeze some concessions from Democrats on the budget. But that was until Cruz launched his quixotic campaign to defund Obamacare — rallying the conference's tea party hardliners and forcing Speaker John Boehner and other leaders along for the ride. Not only did Cruz's crusade badly damage public perceptions of Congressional Republicans, it left them with a worse deal than they likely would have gotten if they had never shut down the government.
"I don't think there's any question [it's worse]. I could have written this story from day one. If you follow the Cruz plan, you end up exactly where we are," Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger told BuzzFeed. "I think it's obvious that we had a really grown up plan on how to deal with this, we had some in our party who rejected that, and we had to go along with [the Cruz] plan."
Asked if unhappiness with Cruz is widespread in the conference, Kizinger said, "Sure yeah, absolutely. I think we all feel the same."
New York Rep. Peter King has long been one of Cruz's loudest critics since the push to defund Obamacare began (and even before that), and he left the Republican conference Wednesday morning with an I-told-you-so attitude.
"I think it's important for Republican leaders around the country to speak out against him and neutralize him," King said of Cruz. "Otherwise he's going to start the same nonsense again in December or January. He's the guy that caused this, he's the guy who is a fraud because he never had a strategy to begin with. And if we let him do it again, it's our fault."
Others said House Republicans should shoulder some of the blame for following Cruz in the first place.
"Well, this has been a productive exercise hasn't it?" snarked another Republican congressman. "We can blame Ted Cruz, and yeah, he convinced a lot of people that they were somehow not really conservatives if we didn't take this route, and that's ridiculous. But at the end of day, we played along. So shame on us."
Cruz still holds considerable sway among House conservatives, who rallied around his cause.
But even within the ranks of the conference's most ideologically pure, there's frustration with the path Cruz led them down.
"You can't just pull the pin on the grenade, roll it in the tent, and walk away," one conservative Republican said. "There's real frustration" within the House Republican conference, the lawmaker added.
Asked if it was a mistake to make the shutdown and debt limit about defunding Obamacare rather than spending and debt, Rep. Thomas Massie tersely said, "I've got no comment on that."
Rep. Ron DeSantis, however, acknowledged that making defunding Obamacare the primary rallying cry obscured more realistic goals, including eliminating an employee subsidy for lawmakers and their staff and delaying the individual mandate for one year.
"We didn't articulate that well. It got kind of lost in the initial defund push," DeSantis said Wednesday.
Republican Rep. Reid Ribble of Wisconsin, without calling out Cruz specifically, said that part of the issue leading up to the shutdown was the fact that House and Senate Republicans were not on the same page and divisions spilled out into the open.
"If we as conservatives want to create a bicameral strategy together — and not have one side pushing the other side, if you look at how the House Republicans have voted vs. how the Senate Republicans have voted, it's dysfunctional. No one has sat down and said, 'What does the conservative movement in the 21st century look like?' And hopefully the lesson learned here, is that that will be answered soon."
After the Senate deal was announced, Republicans had virtually nothing to show at the end of the two-week shutdown. Cruz was swarmed by reporters in the Capitol who asked if the GOP civil war that had broken out had been worth it when in the end very little had changed, except for Republican poll numbers which have tanked considerably.
"We have seen a remarkable thing happen. Months ago, when the effort to defund Obamacare began, official Washington scoffed. They scoffed that the American people would rise up," Cruz said. "We saw the House of Representatives take a courageous stand listening to the American people, that everyone in official Washington, just weeks earlier, said would never happen. That was a remarkable victory to see the House engage in a profile of courage."
If there was any blame to go around, Cruz said, it belonged to Senate Republicans. Cruz had launched into a 21-hour filibuster a few weeks ago, urging his colleagues to vote against a procedural vote.
"Unfortunately, the Senate chose not to follow the House. And in particular, we saw real division among Senate Republicans," he said. "That was unfortunate. I would point out that had Senate Republicans united, and supported House Republicans, the outcome of this, I believe, would've been very, very different. I wish that had happened, but it did not."
Republicans were nervous that Cruz would employ a filibuster-esque tactic to delay passage of the deal in the Senate. But Cruz relented, saying he understood it would not effect the outcome in this case. Cruz said that he would continue to fight against Obamacare, but did not hint explicitly how he intends to do that.
A House GOP aide said that a lot of members have come away from the shutdown experience, cognizant that their strategy needs to improve moving forward.
"You certainly have to look at whether or not we should chase ideas or objectives that you just can't win and if you do so what expense," the aide said. "I don't think many people are going to take [Cruz] very seriously if this is a tactic he wants to use moving forward."