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Ted Cruz, the Most Hated Man in Congress, Has Returned to Washington

Senators are waiting to see whether the failed presidential candidate will alter his tactics in Congress, but Cruz is indicating that nothing will change.

by Sarah Mimms
May 11 2016, 8:35pm

Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

After spending more than a year on the campaign trail demonizing Congress and American politicians, Senator Ted Cruz returned to work this week in the US Capitol, the headquarters of what he has dubbed the "Washington cartel."

Cruz, one of the most hated men in Congress, returned to Washington Tuesday afternoon, where he will have to once again work with colleagues that he repeatedly accused of corruption and getting "in bed with the lobbyists and special interests" during his political campaign.

"It's great to be back in the warming embrace of Washington," Cruz sardonically told reporters in front of his Senate office on Tuesday.

Cruz skipped a vote in the Senate on Monday, as well as a luncheon with his Republican colleagues Tuesday afternoon, leaving senators eager to discover who is re-joining their ranks. Will it be the Cruz they know — the firebrand Texan who called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a "liar" on the Senate floor, who twice went around leadership to try to force a government shutdown (once successfully) and then criticized and questioned their motives across the country during his run for the presidency? Or is it a new Cruz, one chastened by his loss in the presidential race, who will return to his job eager to work with them to get something done?

Those questions remain unanswered, at least for now. Cruz received uproarious applause from his staff upon his return on Tuesday, but many of his Republican colleagues, including those who have hardly kept their opinions of the senator to themselves in the past, are holding their tongues.

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There is a palpable sense among Senate Republicans that they would like to avoid kicking a man while he's down, just a week after his presidential hopes expired. But there is also hope that the man they knew and loved to loathe may return humming a new tune.

"I think he'll come back and he'll decide how and what role he wants to play in the Senate," Senator John Thune, a member of Republican leadership, said Tuesday.

"But you know, that's his prerogative," Thune added, when asked about the various insults Cruz slung at Washington politicians like himself on the campaign trail this year. "Every senator approaches this job differently and has different priorities, objectives, and in most cases styles of doing things. He's fresh off the campaign trail, and I assume that when he reenters the Senate, hopefully, he'll plow into Senate work and help us get some things done around here. We'll see if that's the case. And I would hope that it would be."

For Cruz, his first 24 hours back in Washington haven't been too different from his time on the campaign trail. He is still followed by small packs of reporters everywhere he goes, using the word "Trump" more often than they use his own name.

In some ways, Cruz is different. In interviews, it's clear that the toll of the presidential campaign is still weighing on him. When asked about the results in Nebraska on Tuesday night, where Cruz still pulled in nearly 20 percent of the vote a week after he ended his campaign, the Texan grew quiet and a bit emotional.

"I am encouraged and gratified by every vote I received and the support across the country. My greatest disappointment in the race," he said, pausing and lower his voice, "is that I fell short and failed to deliver for the millions of grassroots activists who worked so hard [and] desperately want to change the path we're on.... I'm sorry that I disappointed the conservative grassroots by not being able to prevail."

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Cruz returned to work with zeal on Wednesday morning, attending a lengthy Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, where he offered amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act, and taking part in two Senate votes.

"It is good to be back. I'm rolling up my sleeves and hard at work," he told VICE News, as he shuffled between a vote on federal funding for energy and water issues and the committee hearing. "My priorities on the campaign were jobs, freedom and security. I had hoped to fight for jobs, freedom and security from the White House. Instead, I will continue to fight for those very same priorities here in the Senate because those are the priorities of the American people and we need leaders who are accountable to the American people."

That work is gratifying to many members of the Republican caucus, including some of Cruz's biggest critics.

Senator John McCain, who once called Cruz a "wacko bird" and added to the Cruz birther controversy by questioning whether the senator could hold the office of president since he was born in Canada, said Wednesday that his committee was "welcoming" Cruz back.

"I think most of us believe that we've got work to do and we look forward to working with all of our colleagues," McCain said, adding that he is "sure" that Cruz will work with him and other members of the Armed Services Committee, now that the presidential campaign is over.

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Thune said that Cruz's decision to skip their party's weekly meeting on Tuesday was between him and his constituents, adding that it's up to every senator and those they represent to decide "how they do their job."

"But yeah, it'd be good to have him back. He's a member of my committee, the Commerce Committee, and we haven't seen him in a while," Thune added with a smile. "So we always like to have participation from our members."

Several other senators said that they were unsure how Cruz would reintegrate himself into the Senate after repeatedly hammering them during his campaign.

"I think you should ask him this question," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, Cruz's colleague from Texas, said Wednesday morning. "I haven't seen him... So, I'll let you know how it goes."

Senator Bob Corker said that he had "no idea" how Cruz would now operate in the Senate.

But Cornyn, Corker, and others said they didn't harbor any hard feelings against Cruz for ripping them apart during the campaign. Anti-Washington sentiment is, after all, a common refrain for those seeking to run it.

Senator Lindsey Graham, who once joked about the possibility of murdering Cruz on the Senate floor and avoiding conviction because Cruz's colleagues hate him so much, later endorsed the Texan in the presidential campaign and said Tuesday that he was glad to have him back.

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And although he said that it will be up to Cruz whether he wants to work to repair relationships with some of his other colleagues, Graham added that "he doesn't need to try harder with me."

"I think a lot of people here will always consider Ted an outsider," Graham said, laughing.

Graham said that he is "not upset" about the way Cruz trashed members of Congress during his campaign, arguing that he agrees that there is a problem in a government that "can't get anything done."

"You try to reach across the aisle to solve a problem and people on the left and the right push back. At the end of the day, what I find frustrating about American politics is that you can't find common ground," he said.

But Cruz went beyond the typical frustrations with a lack of compromise in Washington, instead often questioning the motives and honor of his colleagues on Capitol Hill. Pressed on that point in particular, Graham jumped into an elevator and started to speak, but then pretended that the doors were closing too quickly, saying: "Bye!"

Cruz doesn't seem particularly interested in changing. When asked Wednesday how he'd come back from his criticisms and work again with some of his strongest critics, Cruz smiled and didn't hold back.

"Well, this election, I believe, should be a wake-up call to a great many people in Washington [of] the frustration and rage felt by the American people towards Washington, toward politicians, who aren't listening to them and who are enriching the special interests and lobbyists at the expense of the working men and women," he said. "My priority in the Senate, as it would have been as president, is fighting or the working men and women of this country and I hope that the Congress does a much better job of prioritizing the people over the special interest lobbyists."

Asked if the presidential campaign would change the way he works in the Senate, Cruz said simply: "I intend to continue to fight for the 27 million Texans who I represent every day."

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Follow Sarah Mimms on Twitter: @SarahMMimms