WASHINGTON - Sen. Ted Cruz ended his marathon talking protest of President Obama's health care law around noon Wednesday, as the Senate headed toward a procedural vote on a measure that would eventually continue the law's funding.
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The Texas Republican was applauded by GOP senators and House members in the chamber when he finally yielded control of the Senate floor after 21 hours and 19 minutes.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, however, called Cruz's talkathon "a big waste of time."
"We all admire the senator from Texas for his wanting to talk," Reid, D-Nev., said shortly after the Texan was done. "With all due respect, I'm not sure we learned anything new."
The Senate will vote at about 1 p.m. ET to move forward on a stopgap spending bill. Reid intends to take out House-passed language to defund the law known as Obamacare, over the objections of Cruz and his conservative Tea Party allies that the legislation is a costly intrusion in people's lives.
If Congress does not pass a spending bill before the end of the month, the government could face a shutdown on Oct. 1.
Technically under Senate rules, Cruz's talkathon was not a filibuster because the Texas Republican couldn't prevent the Senate from having the scheduled vote. As Cruz came to a close, he thanked his aides, Senate staff and Capitol police for being on duty throughout the night, likening the time spent by all to the Bataan death march.
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He implored the American people to hold their lawmakers accountable on Obama's health care law. "The pleas from the American people ... are deafening," he said. "The frustration that the U.S. Senate doesn't listen to the people."
Cruz took control of the Senate floor about 2:41 p.m. ET on Tuesday, vowing to speak "until I am no longer able to stand." Overnight, he filled time by talking about the Revolutionary War, the battle against the Nazis, reading tweets from supporters and even reciting Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham.
Cruz also shared "words of wisdom" from the reality TV show Duck Dynasty and quoted much of country music singer Toby Keith's song Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.
A little after 9 a.m. ET Wednesday, Cruz passed the speaking time of Sen. Robert LaFollette, R-Wis., who railed against a bill dealing with U.S. currency for 18 hours, 23 minutes in 1908. In terms of time spent controlling the floor, Cruz lapped such legendary Senate talkers as Robert Byrd, Alfonse D'Amato, Huey Long and William Proxmire.
Because of the timing of the Senate vote, Cruz fell short of breaking the Senate filibuster record held by then-Democrat Strom Thurmond of 24 hours, 18 minutes in 1957.
GOP Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida arrived before dawn Wednesday to ask questions of their fellow Tea Party disciple so Cruz didn't have to speak the whole time. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., took his turn and offered to buy Cruz breakfast.
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Cruz and Lee have led the defunding effort despite criticism from Senate Republicans who view their tactics as short-sighted because there is no chance of passage up against a Democratic-led Senate and Obama's veto pen.
Lee referred to the Supreme Court ruling that declared Obamacare to be constitutional as a "lawless act" and "something that we should be ashamed of as Americans."
Reid said Tuesday that filibusters "stop people from voting, and we are going to vote tomorrow." Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid, posted on Twitter on Tuesday that Cruz and Reid had pre-negotiated the terms of Cruz's floor time.
The House-passed spending bill under debate in the Senate maintains the current annual $986 billion funding levels across the federal government through Dec. 15 but includes a provision to defund the Affordable Care Act, the law's official title.
The Senate's vote Wednesday would essentially clear the way for a final up-or-down vote by the weekend, but Reid is going to strip out the language eliminating spending for the health care law, which is why Cruz and his allies are using blocking tactics.
Senate Democrats also intend to change the time period of the stopgap spending bill to Nov. 15, in order to nudge lawmakers closer toward passing the annual spending bills instead of relying on stopgap measures. "The best way to stop lurching on this crisis to the next crisis is to get back into funding our government the way the Founding Fathers set it out, through the appropriations process," Reid said.
A majority of Senate Republicans have said they opposed Cruz's tactics on the spending bill, partly out of fears they will be blamed for a government shutdown. That kind of finger-pointing happened more than a decade ago, when the GOP-controlled House led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich forced a 21-day shutdown in 1995-1996.
The chamber's top two Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Monday that they will not vote with Cruz, a clear signal that there are the 60 votes necessary to move forward with the debate on the spending bill.
"We'd all be hard-pressed to explain why we were opposed to a bill we were in favor of," McConnell said Tuesday, noting that the vote Wednesday will allow debate on a bill that includes the defund language since Reid has not had the opportunity to strip it out yet.
Republicans are seeking other avenues to dismantle the health care law, and may have another opportunity when Congress is asked to raise the debt ceiling sometime in mid-October.
House Republicans are working to approve a legislative package tied to raising the nation's borrowing authority that would delay the health care law's implementation for one year. In exchange, the House GOP wants the debt ceiling raised through next year.
Obama has maintained that he will not negotiate on the debt ceiling because of the potentially sweeping economic repercussions that could arise from the United States defaulting on its debt payments. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew warned Congress in a letter sent Wednesday that the U.S. will hit its borrowing limit no later than Oct. 17. By that day, the Treasury expects cash reserves to be reduced to $30 billion, but the federal government spends about $60 billion each day.