CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – A hurricane in his own backyard is offering Ted Cruz a prime opportunity to show Texans – and the nation – he can be a compassionate, fiscally conservative leader who’s moved past his very ugly public riff with President Donald Trump that roiled some conservatives during last year’s presidential campaign.
Texas’ junior U.S. senator is doing fine showing compassion. But two days into one of the biggest storms in history to hit Texas’ southeast coast, Cruz, whose hometown of Houston is enduring the worst of the storm this week, has made little progress showing he’s willing to demonstrate fiscal restraint or embrace Trump.
Though he joined Trump at storm meetings in Corpus Christi and Austin on Tuesday, Cruz avoided the most public appearance on the runway when the president arrived in Corpus Christi.
And as Washington lawmakers begin to craft emergency relief legislation for victims of Hurricane Harvey, Cruz has been dogged with bad press. The media has been rehashing his vote against similar legislation after Superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey in 2012.
Politicians routinely use natural disasters to illustrate their compassion and leadership skills – and embellish reputations they can use to seek higher office.
Most prominent in recent years was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s praise a few days before the election for President Barack Obama’s “concern and compassion” for Sandy’s victims. Obama in turn praised Christie’s “extraordinary leadership.”
The exchanges infuriated conservatives but gave Christie a huge boost as a national figure, momentum he tried to use in his 2016 bid for the GOP presidential nomination.
Cruz allies insist this moment could still be his time to flourish.
“These are the kind of situations that separate true leaders, particularly to be in his home town. It really does put him in a unique position to illustrate how he handles some kind of national natural disaster,” said one Cruz adviser, who stressed the important it was for the senator to work with Trump right now.
Citing high waters still on the roads near his house, Cruz’s office did not confirm his attendance for meetings Tuesday until that very morning.
Cruz then avoided the president’s public arrival on Air Force One with other Cabinet members, which the state’s Republican Gov. Greg Abbott attended. Cruz’s office did not explain why he was not present.
On the disaster funding bill, Cruz has stayed silent about his plans, instead of taking the lead as local senators usually do. A host of local and national headlines have branded him a hypocrite for his vote against Sandy funding. Cruz defended his vote as a stand against wasteful government spending that had nothing to do with the storm which was also in the relief bill.
In an interview from the George R. Brown Convention Center, where he was visiting storm victims Monday, Cruz sparred with MSBNC’s Katy Tur, but failed to offer details for how he’d help the Senate avoid those same fiscal pitfalls on Harvey aid.
“Two-thirds of that bill had nothing to do with Sandy,” Cruz responded to Tur’s questions about his past vote. “What I said then and still believe now is that it’s not right for politicians to exploit a disaster when people are hurting to pay for their own political wish list.”
Cruz allies are hopeful that when he returns to Washington, he’ll be able to take the lead on a bill that will provide aid but find spending cuts or other ways to pay for it. The bill, said Cruz aides, will avoid the kind of local projects, often called pork, that lawmakers tend to attach to such legislation.
Cruz arrived in Washington nearly five years ago championing a brand of economic conservatism that put him at odds with many of his Senate colleagues but made his extremely popular in his home state.
In the coming weeks, allies say, he could get a chance to show those skills, in shepherding a bill for Hurricane Harvey damages that’s paid for by cuts elsewhere, and without the kind of pork lawmakers tend to throw into this kind of legislation.
“If out of this there’s truly a paid bill that is only about Houston and rebuilding the damage that’s been done, then that would give a lot of people comfort probably in terms of his leadership and his integrity to his beliefs,” said the Cruz adviser.
Cruz’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on work he’s doing related to the disaster bill.
In an interview Monday from a Houston relief center, Cruz found himself responding to criticism from New York Rep. Peter King, a Republican who tweeted that his state won’t “abandon” Texas the way Cruz and his “cohorts” did during Sandy. Cruz repeated his assessment of that decision, saying the bill “was simply politicians wasting money.”
Maya MacGuineas, president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which advocates for bills where projects are paid for, said the idea of finding offsets for emergency spending would be difficult.
MacGuineas said that if leaders like Cruz wanted the bill paid for, they should get in front of the conversation and suggest ways to pay for it.
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