U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz held a lengthy but civil debate with a small group of hecklers defending former President Barack Obama's health care law in his home state's capital Thursday night -- even as he expressed doubts about whether the Republican plan to repeal and replace it will pass the Senate.
The former presidential hopeful was in a hotel conference room in the liberal bastion of Austin for a town hall organized by Concerned Veterans for America, a group funded by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers. Access was strictly controlled and the first 20 minutes featured only sympathetic questions.
Then, however, a small group of attendees shouted "liberal is not a bad word" and denounced the Senate's proposed health overhaul urging Cruz, "Don't vote for it."
Cruz at first ignored them but eventually replied, "Let's talk about Obamacare." When Austin retiree Gary Marsh stood up and said, "Can I please request that you refer to it as the Affordable Care Act?" Cruz shot back: "You can request it. But I'm gonna decline."
Marsh, 67, defended the Obama administration's health care law for several minutes. Cruz listened, but followed with a lengthy answer explaining why he thinks it should be fully repealed.
Police stood near Marsh and other hecklers, though no one was removed from the event. "It was civil, I thought," Marsh said afterward.
With the Senate on recess, Cruz has spent the week making sometimes tense appearances back home. He was repeatedly interrupted by protesters during a July 4 stop in McAllen, on Texas' border with Mexico and protesters gathered outside another Concerned Veterans for America town hall with Cruz on Wednesday night in suburban Dallas.
Still, Cruz has largely avoided the kind of intense exchanges with constituents that have for months plagued other Republicans holding town halls while Congress is out of session.
Speaking on San Antonio's KTSA Radio earlier Thursday, Cruz called the possible failure in the Senate of a health care overhaul "catastrophic" saying, "I think we'll look like laughingstocks if we can't get our act together." But he also cautioned: "We don't have agreement."
"It is precarious," Cruz said. "The majority is so narrow, I don't know if we get it done or not."
Cruz joined top Senate conservatives in quickly rejecting the original version of the Senate's health care bill. Other Republicans have since followed suit. Instead, Cruz is pushing a conservative alternative aiming to cut costs by giving states greater flexibility to create separate higher-risk pools -- an approach that critics say could collapse the health insurance market.
Seeking compromise is a dramatic departure for Cruz, who long relished being a conservative insurgent capable of infuriating Senate establishment leaders from both parties. It was only four years ago that Cruz helped spark a conservative revolt that ended with a partial government shutdown.
Cruz has shrugged off suggestions that his new role doesn't come naturally. He told the radio station Thursday that, since the beginning of the year, "I've been focused on uniting Republicans" by bringing "everyone to the table" and ensuring that conservative and moderate senators can reach a deal and feel satisfied with a revamped Senate proposal.
"We've got to get 50 out of 52 Republicans," in the Senate, he said. "We've got to find a way to bring people together."
But in the muggy heat outside the Austin event, protesters countered that Americans can come together to defend the law Cruz calls "Obamacare."
"I have no hope that we're going to bring him around, our best hope is to call attention to this," said Ryan Stone, a 33-year-old accountant and city council member from the nearby town of Manor. Stone was one of several people who hoisted a "Repeal and Replace Senator Ted Cruz" banner and said if the current national health care law goes away he may not be able to afford medication for psoriatic arthritis that costs $60,000 annually.