WASHINGTON, D.C. - Just how big a favor Sen. Ted Cruz did for President Obama, we may never know.
But Cruz's tactics in the closing days of the Senate session left the Texas conservative firebrand apologizing to his Republican colleagues and allowing Sen. Harry Reid to end his eight-year run as majority leader on a high note.
In the end, Democrats were allowed to approve around two dozen of President Obama's judicial and executive nominees since Friday, some of them staunchly opposed by Republicans. And it left a defiant Cruz -- widely blamed for the tally -- catching sarcastic praise from Democrats and bitter rebukes from Republicans.
Among the nominees approved since Friday were a surgeon general pick opposed by the powerful National Rifle Association; a controversial deputy secretary of state, and a new administrator of Immigration and Customs Enforcement who rankled GOP lawmakers by backing the president's executive action on immigration.
On Friday the Senate was cruising toward approving a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill, funding the government through the end of the fiscal year. The bill, which had nearly faltered in the House the day before, was to be the last major piece of business for Senate before the end of the year. But Cruz, angered that the bill didn't undo Obama's recent executive immigration actions, moved to block it.
It's not unusual for a lone senator or a small group to try and block or slow down a bill, and the rules allow it. But Cruz seemed to fumble when he objected to a deal between Reid and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader.
Reid and McConnell had agreed to delay any votes until Monday and prevent any other business from coming during the weekend. But when Cruz objected to that agreement he killed it. Reid grabbed the initiative as majority leader and decided to use the open time to line up votes on more than 20 Obama appointees. Cruz's move was such a surprise that McConnell had left the Senate for the weekend.
Thanks to Democratic changes to the Senate rules known as the "nuclear option," Reid needed only 51 votes instead of the traditional 60 to clear the nominees. And by the time the Senate adjourned for the year late Tuesday night, Democrats gleefully boasted that they had cleared 88 of the president's nominees during the 113th Congress, the most since 1994.
Senate Republicans spent much of the weekend complaining that Cruz's tactics had handed Reid the opportunity to push nominees they opposed. "You should have an end goal in sight if you're going to do these types of things and I don't see an end goal other than irritating a lot of people," GOP Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said.
Cruz wrote an op-ed Tuesday calling that "nonsense" and saying that Reid intended to clear the nominees before the end of the session no matter what.
Still, Cruz apologized to his Republican colleagues Tuesday for forcing them to upend their weekend schedules to stay in the Capitol to vote. He did not, several senators said, apologize for giving Reid the chance to approve controversial nominees.
Adam Jentleson, a Reid spokesman, told the New York Times that Democrats likely would have had time to clear just 15 nominees before senators left town this week. Instead, they got the chance to approve 24 and set the 20-year record for Senate action on appointments.
Asked Tuesday what he thought of Cruz's tactics, McConnell, who in January will become Majority Leader himself, declined to relive them in front of reporters.
"I'm not going to go back and rehash the events of the past few days," he said.
Todd Zwillich is Washington correspondent for The Takeaway from Public Radio International and WNYC. He's covered Washington and Capitol Hill for more than 15 years. Follow him on Twitter @toddzwillich.
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