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WASHINGTON – Fool’s errand or heroic stand?

The bipartisan compromise Wednesday to avoid a financial default and end a 16-day partial shutdown of the federal government cast a spotlight on Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, who had precipitated the crises with their demand that President Obama gut his signature health care law.

Other Republicans who repeatedly had warned the two about their quixotic move took little pleasure in saying “I told you so.” The final deal hardly nicked the health care law, while the shutdown and near-default left the GOP reeling.

“He’s the one who got us into this. He had no strategy. And it caused us to waste 16 days and get ourselves killed in the polls,” Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., said of Cruz. “All for a guy who was fraudulent from the start.”

With a heavy dose of gallows humor, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., said Republicans’ poll “numbers have gone down, Obamacare’s somehow mysteriously have gone up. And other than that, this has been great.”

Cruz, a freshman who engaged in a 21-hour talkathon and egged on House Republicans for the fight, was unapologetic.

“This battle will continue to provide real relief for the millions of Americans who are hurting, who right now still don’t have a voice in the United States Senate,” said Cruz, surrounded by a pack of reporters.

Lee offered no regrets, vowing to continue the fight to repeal the health care law. “This is not over,” he said in a Senate speech.

Their defiance has been wildly cheered by outside conservative groups that have made money on the months-long dispute and the far right flank that hails Cruz and Lee for what they call a principled, courageous stand.

Cruz, a potential presidential candidate in 2016, has seized the headlines and collected nearly $800,000 for his political action committee in the last three months.

“I think Ted Cruz and Mike Lee did exactly the job that those of us who helped them get elected” wanted them to do, said Drew Ryun of the Madison Project, one of the first conservative organizations to back Cruz last year in his long-shot Senate bid.

Among tea party Republicans, Cruz’s popularity has climbed, from a 47 percent favorability rating in July to 74 percent, according to a Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday. Non-tea party Republicans see him in a less favorable light, with his unfavorable numbers up to 31 percent.

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll showed three-quarters of Americans disapproving of the way congressional Republicans were handling the budget.

Cruz’s standing has also fallen in his hometown. The Houston Chronicle has expressed its regrets for endorsing Cruz a year ago.

“Does anyone else miss Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison?” asked the newspaper’s editorial board, citing the retired three-term U.S. senator whom Cruz succeeded. “We’re not sure how much difference one person could make in the toxic, chaotic, hyperpartisan atmosphere in Washington, but if we could choose just one it would be Hutchison, whose years of service in the Senate were marked by two things sorely lacking in her successor, Ted Cruz. … Cruz has been part of the problem in specific situations where Hutchison would have been part of the solution.”

To Senate Republicans, Cruz and Lee are near pariahs, publicly slammed for a tactic that has taken a heavy toll on the GOP’s standing and privately criticized for helping outside groups targeting Republican incumbents before next year’s congressional elections.

“What did I say three weeks ago? What did I say a month ago? It was a fool’s errand,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., waving a copy of the latest poll for reporters clustered in the Senate basement earlier this week. “I knew that it was going to be a disaster, and it is a disaster.”

Yet for all the internal backbiting, Cruz stands as the Teflon tea partyer, winning over conservatives.

At the Values Voter Summit this past weekend, an annual gathering of social conservatives and evangelicals, participants echoed Cruz and Lee’s determination not to back down.

Lee brought activists to their feet when he said he was still working with Cruz to strip money from the health care law.

“We make no apologies. We stand with you,” Lee said, drawing loud applause.

Cruz won the organization’s straw poll Saturday with 42 percent, well ahead of former presidential candidate Rick Santorum and Dr. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon.

Dennis Bussey of Richmond, Va., said many conservatives are searching for a new standard-bearer and he was impressed by Cruz’s reception.

“We’re looking for someone – maybe not a hero, but maybe we do need a hero,” he said.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.