Whether or not the government shuts down tonight, there will be one big political winner: Ted Cruz.
The freshman Texas senator has become the face and voice of the Republicans in their showdown with Democrats and the White House over funding the government.
In recent memory, no newcomer to the Senate with less than 10 months in office has exercised as much influence.
Cruz, vilified by establishment Republicans, many pundits and the inside-the-Beltway cognoscenti, is the darling of his party's right-wing base after his 21-hour faux filibuster last week in which he asked for curbs to President Barack Obama's health-care law as the price of keeping the government open.
The effort was futile in legislative terms and could potentially do long-term damage to the Republican brand. But the pressure applied by Cruz emboldened House Republicans to stay the course and force a standoff. He encouraged rank-and-file right-wing U.S. representatives to keep the pressure on House Speaker John Boehner.
Yesterday, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, called Cruz the de facto Republican leader of the House. Others say he has the same role in the Senate.
There seems to be an inverse relationship between disapproval in Washington and adulation among grass-root conservatives. Cruz is the darling of much of right-wing talk radio, Republican primary contestants are lining up to identify with him and phone calls from constituents to Republican lawmakers tilt in his favor.
The 42-year-old may have put himself in a win-win situation: If Democrats cave and concede anything on Obamacare, Cruz will be hailed by party activists as the man who made it happen. If Republicans ultimately capitulate, the take-no- prisoners Texan can be expected to lead a chorus of criticism of his own party.
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