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The Return of 'Speaker Cruz'

Cruz talks with reporters after voting against cloture on the TPA bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

"Speaker Cruz" is looking for a comeback.  

With House GOP leaders meting out punishment against conservatives, and with the House and Senate moving ahead on a plan that would give President Barack Obama the authority to negotiate a major trade deal, Sen. Ted Cruz changed his mind on Trade Promotion Authority Tuesday and, in a blistering op-ed , decided to take some shots at GOP leaders along the way. Without offering any real proof, Cruz accused Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of agreeing to vote on renewing the Export-Import Bank if pro-trade Democrats would vote for TPA. Cruz said House conservatives went to Boehner and offered to get TPA over the finish line if the Ohio Republican would agree to let Ex-Im die. "Instead," Cruz wrote, "it appears he made the deal with Democrats, presumably tossing in the Ex-Im Bank and also increasing tax penalties on businesses."  

"It appears" and "presumably" aside, Boehner has said the only commitment he's made on Ex-Im is that, if the Senate attached Ex-Im to a must-pass bill, there'd be an "open amendment debate" in the House, and Boehner's office strongly denied Cruz's claim on Tuesday. McConnell, meanwhile, made it clear the upcoming highway bill would be open for amendment, and said, "it’s pretty obvious" Ex-Im supporters could get a vote on the export credit agency then.  

But Cruz was just getting started. He went after Boehner for punishing conservatives, "wrongly stripping Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., of his subcommittee chairmanship, and reportedly threatening to strip other conservatives of their chairmanships as well."  

If that wasn't direct enough, Cruz had a couple of questions: "Why does Republican Leadership always give in to the Democrats? Why does Leadership always disregard the promises made to the conservative grassroots?"  

The Texas Republican wanted a commitment from Boehner and McConnell that they would let the Ex-Im Bank expire and that they would pass an amendment from Cruz and fellow firebrand Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., that would prevent any "back-door" changes to immigration laws. (There was already language added to TPA to allay those concerns.)  

After Cruz prominently came out in support of TPA with House Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin in April, and after Cruz voted for TPA in the Senate numerous times, he made a course correction: Cruz voted "no" Tuesday on a key procedural hurdle for TPA , which cleared the 60-vote cloture threshold anyway.  

But Cruz changing his mind and railing against GOP leadership has bigger ramifications than TPA. It's a key moment for the Texas Republican, who, with his early support of the trade authority, looked poised to prove he could be more than just an obstructionist leader. Sensing a changing political climate on TPA, however, and perhaps seeing an opportunity to reassert himself as a conservative leader inside and outside of Congress, Cruz returned to a more familiar role: the thwarter.  

Or, at least, the attempted thwarter.  

Too calculating to be puckish, but maybe too mischievous to actually be effective, Cruz has made a name for himself by challenging GOP leadership in both chambers. While his actual legislative achievements have been few, he's shown an ability to rack up political wins, to score points against both sides, Democrats and Republicans. And it's that willingness that's made him such a divisive figure among House Republicans.  

Senior GOP aides were practically lining up Tuesday to offer anonymous quotes bashing Cruz.  

"The only thing that's changed since Senator Cruz voted in favor of TPA five times is that The Donald entered the presidential race," one senior GOP aide told CQ Roll Call in an email, tongue presumably planted in cheek. "With poll numbers twice those of Cruz, you have to wonder if Mr. Trump is getting under Cruz's skin?"  

Another senior GOP aide noted that Ronald Reagan supported free trade and trade-negotiating authority because it was good for the country. "Cruz’s juvenile flip-flop demonstrates how small he really is,” the aide said.  

Another senior GOP aide called Cruz's reversal "a transparent flip-flop for purely political reasons."  

"If Cruz is so concerned about his poll numbers," the aide continued, "maybe he should spend more time campaigning and less time meddling in the House to avoid these desperate 'I was for it, before I was against it' ploys."  

Clearly, there's plenty of bad blood between House Republicans and Cruz.  

In 2013, he famously steered Congress toward a shutdown over Obamacare, and he tried to keep the fight in the House, meeting with House conservatives in the basement of Tortilla Coast. And Cruz has continued to host somewhat sporadic strategy sessions in his office over We, The Pizza.  

Cruz has used those evening meetings to get conservatives in Congress on the same page (while also burnishing his credentials as a leader of the conservative movement). Right-wing House members have emerged from those meetings all pushing for the same thing, whether it be a longer continuing resolution to push Homeland Security spending decisions into a different Congress or opposition to a border supplemental if it didn't include legislation ending Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.  

Cruz on Tuesday did not say whether more retaliation toward leadership would follow, but reiterated his concerns that Boehner and GOP leadership had turned their backs on conservatives.  

“Republicans should be standing with conservatives, not trying to punish conservatives,” Cruz told reporters. "It would have been very simple for leadership to take a principled stand here, and I’m hopeful that that’s what they’ll do. But there’s been far too many backroom deals, far too much cronyism and following the priorities of Washington lobbyists, rather than honoring the commitments he made to the grass-roots conservatives who elected us.  

"I think it was wrong for the speaker to punish a conservative for voting his conscience," he said.  

Emma Dumain and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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