GOP senators appear ready to corral Cruz

Who’s afraid of big, bad Ted Cruz?

Not Lamar Alexander. The Tennessee Republican went on the Senate floor to accuse his fellow Republican of proposing actions that would “render ourselves lawless” and cause “chaos.” Alexander reminded the Texan that the Senate “requires restraint and goodwill.”

Not John Cornyn. The senior senator from Texas said that Cruz’s prescription would be a “terrible mistake” and that if his fellow Texas Republican were making a valid point, “you would find other voices joining that of the junior senator, but I hear no one.”

And certainly not Orrin Hatch. The Utah Republican and Senate president pro tempore said on the Senate floor, in remarks prompted by Cruz, that “squabbling and sanctimony” won’t be tolerated.

“The Senate floor has too often become a forum for partisan messaging,” the veteran legislator inveighed. “It has been misused as a tool to advance personal ambitions, a venue to promote political campaigns and even a vehicle to enhance fundraising efforts” — all of which Cruz has done. “Most egregiously, Mr. President, the Senate floor has even become a place where senators have singled out colleagues by name to attack them in personal terms.”

Finally, Senate Republicans are standing up to the bully who terrorized them the past two and a half years — and they’re finding out he isn’t so tough after all. After Cruz on the Senate floor Friday called his fellow Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a liar, his GOP colleagues have moved swiftly to shut down his antics. They voted in large numbers to renew the Export-Import Bank (McConnell’s scheduling of the vote, opposed by Cruz, is what prompted Cruz to accuse McConnell of lying) and they thwarted Cruz and his sidekick, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, on poison-pill amendments to the highway bill that would have jettisoned Senate rules in order to defund Planned Parenthood, scuttle the Iran nuclear deal and repeal Obamacare.

In a particular humiliation of Cruz, he was unable to get a “sufficient second” for a vote on his Iran amendment Sunday, persuading just three senators — well short of the 20 percent he needed. Such seconds are routinely granted as a courtesy, and longtime Congress watchers couldn’t recall a similar rebuke by senators of a colleague.

McConnell called a meeting of all GOP senators Monday night at which each senator was given an intercepted copy of an email from Lee’s office encouraging outside conservative groups to pressure rank-and-file senators to oppose Republican Senate leaders. Lee apologized, blaming a staffer, and surrendered without a fight in his quest for an Obamacare-repeal amendment to the highway bill.

This could be a turning point for Republicans, if they come to the conclusion that Cruz and his ilk are paper tigers. Cruz has found scant support on the presidential primary trail; polling under 6 percent, he’s in a tie for seventh place and is registering less than a third the support Donald Trump has and less than half that of Jeb Bush.

In a broader sense, Republican senators seem to be growing in confidence that they can defy what remains of the tea party and affiliated conservative groups such as Heritage Action and Club for Growth. Not a single Republican senator was defeated in a primary last year, and none but McCain so far faces a real challenge next year.

Any celebration should be restrained, because the House remains in the grips of Cruz-like conservatives.

McConnell seemed uncharacteristically cheerful as he opened the Senate on Tuesday morning. He smiled at a page. He smiled at Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada. He shared a smile and a chuckle with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California.

“The Senate continues to move closer and closer to passage of a bipartisan multiyear highway bill,” McConnell said.

Minutes later, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, a reliable conservative, went to the floor to move up the vote on the bill. “I’m going to make an appeal for whoever is trying to string this thing out to shorten the time so we can have the vote,” he said, in an obvious reference to Cruz. “Now, whether the individuals have placed themselves in the corner where that’s not going to happen, I don’t know.”

The bully has indeed been cornered, and from here he doesn’t look so menacing.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.

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