It's obvious Sen. Ted Cruz's 21-hour, 19-min tirade against President Barack Obama's signature health care reform law is about de-fanging the legislation, but more fundamentally, conservatives say his stand has created a milestone moment in the tea party movement.
The Texas Republican's bid to thrust the federal government into a shutdown if lawmakers don't back his effort to defund the Affordable Care Act has splintered the Republican Party. And his refusal to heed warnings that his quixotic path is reckless has anointed him the standard-bearer for the hyper-conservative movement.
"What happens over the next 24 to 72 hours and into next week, I think that it's going to be very telling whether the Republican senators and congressmen blatantly ignore their constituents' will the same way that the Democrats did in 2010 when this law was rammed through," says Jenny Beth Martin, president and co-founder of Tea Party Patriots. "I haven't seen this kind of response and intensity since 2010."
Cruz himself seemed to warn his colleagues that his speech was about "the American people" and not just the issue at hand.
"There is a problem in Washington and the problem is bigger than a continuing resolution," he said on the Senate floor during his epic address. "It is bigger than ObamaCare. It is even bigger than the budget. The most fundamental problem and the frustration is that the men and women in Washington aren't listening."
That feeling of being left out – as banks, big auto and other businesses were bailed out with taxpayer money – is what fueled the tea party movement to begin with. Cruz, elected in 2012, is one of the movement's success stories. Others who rode the wave – such as Sharon Angle, Christine O'Donnell and Joe Miller – failed to win office. Those who tried to co-opt the grass roots clout – such as Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum – have all peaked and seen their influence wane. Establishment GOP-ers such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska were able to beat off conservative attempts to unseat them, rendering the movement impotent.
But Martin says all eyes are watching who supports Cruz and his colleague Sen. Mike Lee, R.-Utah, and the results will have consequences.
"This is a milestone and what happens in the next few hours to few days will set the future for the Republican Party and potentially for America as well," she says. But if Republicans rally against Cruz and don't feel the heat of competitive primaries in the 2014 election, it could be the end of establishment fear of grass roots boogey-men sweeping them from power.
Democrats, meanwhile, are feeling the political winds at their backs – finally – after years of taking a beating from Republicans on messaging over Obamacare. An Obama administration report released Wednesday predicted health insurance options offered in federal exchanges would be cheaper and provide more competition than previously thought.
Obama, in an interview with former President Bill Clinton Tuesday, said Cruz and others are motivated by the fact that they know this is their last opportunity to stop Obamacare from becoming a permanent reality.
"[Cruz] said, 'well, once consumers get hooked on having health insurance and subsidies, then they won't want to give it up," Obama said. "This is one of the major opponents of health care reform. It is an odd logic. Essentially they're saying people will like this thing too much and then it will be really hard to roll back."
Martin agrees that this is the final battle on the one issue that has unified Republicans in recent years more than any other.
"I don't see how once people become dependent on the law you are able to pull that back," she says. "We've never done that with any entitlement program in our country so this may be the last stand."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D.-Nev., gave his take on the consequential nature of Cruz's speech on the Senate floor following its conclusion.
"It's been interesting to watch … [but] it's been a big waste of time," Reid said.