Self-immolation on Capitol Hill

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WASHINGTON--The political version of setting oneself on fire has been playing out in Congress these last days by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and the merry band of House Republicans willing to set a torch to the nation's fiscal obligations.

Their snit over President Obama's health-care insurance law, to which they have mockingly given his name, is their device for demanding a defunding of the law, in return for averting an approaching government shutdown.

The president, whose past willingness to negotiate and compromise with the obstructionist Republicans has driven Democratic loyalists up the wall, has dug in this time. He's declared that the obligation of paying Uncle Sam's bills is non-negotiable, and "Obamacare" is the law of the land.

House Speaker John Boehner is himself tied at the stake by tea-party conservatives unwilling to buy into his hapless efforts to get along with them. He seems unable to find enough other House Republicans willing to return the GOP to earlier, better days when compromise was not a dirty word in its party ranks.

Gone are the Charlie Hallecks, the Jerry Fords, and most notably the Bob Michels of Republican yesteryears in the House, to whom herding the cats was a labor of love and reaching across the partisan aisle was commonplace.

The pity of it all is that Boehner has shown himself to be an able and willing conciliator, if only the take-no-prisoners tea-partyers would give him some maneuvering room. But with disrupting or bringing down Obama's main legislative accomplishment driving them so single-mindedly, Boehner has himself dutifully fallen into line.

Ironically, however, it's a member of "the other body," as the House somewhat contemptuously calls the Senate, who has made himself the face of the war on "Obamacare." The obnoxious Cruz, who in his first year has managed to alienate Senate Republicans and Democrats alike, has seized the contentious health-care issue to raise his profile to the point that he is being mentioned, incredibly, as a possible Republican presidential nominee in 2016.

Cruz's transparently self-aggrandizing 21-hour non-filibuster on the Senate floor was a pure exercise in legislative futility. His fellow senators were already poised to cut House-passed language defunding health-care money from the budget bill to keep the government running.

Yet two other young Republican senators with 2016 presidential ambitions, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, gave support to Cruz, apparently to shore up their own backing with the tea-party constituency. Not all Senate Republicans, though, joined the anti-Obamacare lemmings over the cliff.

Perhaps not since the sorry days of demagoguery as practiced by the late and infamous Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin in the 1950s, has the U.S. Senate seen such a naked display of reckless personal ambition as Cruz has displayed.

McCarthy tied his climb to national prominence to a much more dangerous and divisive rocket of fear-mongering, with unfounded charges of widespread communist infiltration of the Eisenhower administration's State Department. In the end, President Eisenhower condemned him, the Senate censured him, and he later died a broken man.

Cruz, operating on the less damaging turf of domestic policy, is not yet the threat to Americans' civil liberties and to the Republic that McCarthy became. But in his single-minded ambition, Cruz is well on his way to tarnishing the Republican Party's image looking toward electing any GOP presidential hopeful three years from now.

Increasingly, the party in Congress looks like a headless horseman galloping with little direction over a cliff in this fixation on killing "Obamacare" and bringing to a halt the functioning government of which the Republicans are supposed to be a governing partner.

The political smokescreen thrown up by Cruz and the House Republicans may well stir up enough anti-Obama sentiment in the 2014 congressional elections to retain GOP control of the House, and even bring gains in the Senate. But because of their antics, the Party of Lincoln still figures to face the next presidential election with an unnecessary blemish on its reputation.

As eventually happened to Joe McCarthy, when even his fellow Republicans could no longer stomach his antics, the same could--and should--happen to Ted Cruz, for the party's own good.

(Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.)

(c) 2013 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.
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Andy Green, the opinion editor, has taken the "know a little bit about everything" approach in his time at The Sun. He was the city/state editor before coming to the editorial board, and prior to that he covered the State House and Baltimore County government.

Tricia Bishop, the deputy editorial page editor, was a reporter in the business and metro sections covering biotechnology, education and city and federal courts prior to joining the board.

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