When Rush Limbaugh asked Sen. Ted Cruz what blowback he expected from accusing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., of lying about reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, the Texas Republican said he was gearing up for more fights.
"Teeth are bared, the knives are out and the cartel is coming after me," Cruz said in the radio interview Friday, as he was on the way to catch a flight.
The message of Cruz's presidential campaign is built largely on a battle between grassroots conservatives and what he calls the "Washington cartel."
But Friday's speech on the Senate floor, which came just after McConnell greased the wheels for a vote reviving the lapsed charter of the Export-Import Bank, raised plenty of eyebrows around the Capitol and beyond. It's a rare occurrence indeed for one senator to accuse another of lying on the floor.
Cruz said McConnell lied about not having made a deal on reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank during floor consideration of Trade Promotion Authority. The trade bill was a priority of most Republicans and President Barack Obama, and it was signed into law.
"The majority leader looked me in the eye, and looked 54 Republicans in the eye. I cannot believe he would tell a flat-out lie. And I voted based on those assurances that he made to each and every single one of us," Cruz said Friday on the floor. "What we just saw today was an absolute demonstration that not only what he told every Republican senator, but what he told the press over and over and over and over again was a simple lie."
McConnell worked with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and others in both parties to craft the compromise highway bill the Senate has been considering. With a shutdown of the highway program not far off, McConnell went ahead and used the rules to block amendments, including several filed by Cruz, while setting up votes on two others — Ex-Im, and another vote to repeal Obamacare that is sure to fail.
While the majority leader's office was declining to weigh in with a direct response to Cruz, the longest-serving Senate Republican came to McConnell's defense.
"Well, he didn't lie," Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch of Utah told reporters. "I don't think any member of the Senate should use that kind of language against any other senator unless they can show definitive proof that there was a lie and I know the leader didn't lie."
The Senate rule governing debate provides that "No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator" — a line that some watching the floor proceedings argued Cruz had crossed.
"I'm not going to be a judge of others, but put it this way, I think it's wrong to disclose private information, especially when the disclosure is not accurate," Hatch said. "I have not seen a better leader in the Senate than Mitch McConnell. McConnell, in my opinion, has been one of the all-time great leaders in the Senate."
Criticism from a longtime legislator such as Hatch is unlikely to sway Cruz. Speaking on the radio, Cruz was again critical of business interests such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, particularly over reports that the group plans to again engage in campaign activities against conservative Republican incumbents.
"Unfortunately, it's why we see so many campaign conservatives that pretend to be conservative on the campaign trail, but they don't govern according to what they promised us on the campaign trail," Cruz said of the influence of lobbyists.
The Texan had long been laying the groundwork for the crusade against the export credit agency, and he promised July 15 that he, along with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was prepared to use any procedural means necessary to jam up the Export-Import Bank.
Beyond the Export-Import Bank, which had seen demonstrated support from more than the 60 senators needed to overcome a Cruz-led filibuster long before the Senate's rare Sunday session, Friday's incident could have repercussions for the Senate itself.
Even in the most partisan of times, the chamber has continued to operate largely by unanimous consent, with lawmakers in both parties needing to trust that they won't be misled by leadership.
"Today is a sad day for this institution," Cruz said on the floor. "The Senate operates based on trust. Whether we are Democrats or Republicans, these 100 senators have to be able to trust that when a senator says something, he or she will do it. Even if we disagree on substance, that we don't lie to each other."
Matthew Fleming contributed to this report.