WASHINGTON — The Democratic-controlled Senate is on a path toward defeating tea party attempts to dismantle President Barack Obama's health care law, despite an overnight talkathon on the chamber's floor led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
The freshman Cruz and other conservative Republicans were trying to delay a must-pass spending bill, but were virtually sure to lose a test vote on that legislation planned for later Wednesday.
Since Tuesday afternoon, Cruz — with occasional remarks by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and other GOP conservatives — has controlled the Senate floor and railed against Obamacare. By 8 a.m. EDT Wednesday, Cruz and his allies had spoken for more than 17 hours, the fifth longest Senate speech since precise record-keeping began in 1900.
That surpassed March's 12-hour, 52-minute speech by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., like Cruz a tea party lawmaker and potential 2016 presidential contender, and filibusters by such Senate icons as Huey Long of Louisiana and Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
Republican leaders and several rank-and-file GOP lawmakers had opposed Cruz's time-consuming effort with the end of the fiscal year looming. They fear that Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans won't have enough time to respond to the Senate's eventual action.
The House-passed measure is required to prevent a government shutdown after midnight Monday and contains a tea party-backed provision to "defund" implementation of what's come to be known as "Obamacare". Cruz is opposed to moving ahead on it under debate terms choreographed by Democrats to defeat the Obamacare provision.
The mechanics of advancing the bill were overshadowed by Cruz's filibuster, which included a reading of Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" to his daughters back home in Texas.
"When Americans tried it, they discovered they did not like green eggs and ham and they did not like Obamacare either," Cruz said. "They did not like Obamacare in a box, with a fox, in a house or with a mouse. It is not working."
Cruz's effort doesn't have a chance to succeed, however, both because Senate rules are working against him and because many of his GOP colleagues think his quixotic effort combines poor strategy with political grandstanding at the expense of other Republicans. Some of Cruz's leading allies include organizations like the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth that frequently give financial help to conservatives challenging more moderate Republicans in primaries.
At issue is a temporary spending bill required to keep the government fully open after the Oct. 1 start of the new budget year. Hard-charging conservatives like Cruz see the measure as an opportunity to use a must-pass measure to try to derail Obama's signature health care law.
Under pressure from Cruz and tea party activists, House GOP leaders added the anti-Obamacare language to the funding measure despite fears it could spark a partial government shutdown that could hurt Republicans in the run-up to midterm elections next year — just as GOP-driven government shutdowns in 1995-96 help revive the political fortunes of President Bill Clinton.
"I just don't believe anybody benefits from shutting the government down, and certainly Republicans don't," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "We learned that in 1995."
Cruz took the floor at 2:41 p.m. Tuesday, vowing to speak until he's "no longer able to stand." He filled the time in a largely empty chamber, criticizing the law and comparing the fight to the battle against the Nazis. He talked about the Revolutionary War, the Washington ruling class and his Cuban-born father who worked as a cook.
Missing from the debate were top Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Cruz's home-state GOP colleague John Cornyn, who say that on a second vote later this week, they will support ending Cruz's effort to derail the funding bill. That vote is crucial because it would allow top Senate Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada to kill the Obamacare provision on a simple majority, instead of the 60 votes often needed for victory.
Democrats control the chamber with 54 votes.
"I think we'd all be hard-pressed to explain why we were opposed to a bill that we're in favor of," McConnell told reporters Tuesday. "And invoking cloture on a bill that defunds Obamacare ... strikes me as a no-brainer."
If Cruz employs all of the delaying tactics at his disposal, the Senate might not vote to pass the measure until Sunday. But with the fiscal year set to expire at midnight Monday, McConnell warned that extended delays could hamper the GOP-controlled House's ability to send a pared-down measure back to the Senate in time to try to salvage some kind of victory, perhaps on a bipartisan proposal to eliminate a new Obamacare tax on medical devices.
The overnight debate included some diversions.
Lee discussed a childhood accident in which his foot was run over by a car driven by his father. Cruz recalled his first Christmas dinner with his future wife's vegetarian parents, which he described as "just like any other Christmas dinner except the entree never comes."
As the sun rose, Cruz was helped by another tea party favorite and possible rival for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination: Sen. Marco Rubio. The Florida lawmaker spoke for over an hour about the damage he said Obamacare is doing to the economy, as the admittedly tired Cruz — who must remain in the chamber and standing to retain control of the debate — strolled in a nearby aisle and occasionally leaned against desks.
Despite his tenacity, it seemed Cruz would not surpass the longest Senate speech on record, a 24-hour, 18-minute filibuster by South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond against the civil rights act in 1957.
Senate rules required the chamber to have an initial vote on the spending bill by early Wednesday afternoon — a roll call that would end Cruz's remarks short of the record.
Associated Press reporters Alan Fram and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.