WASHINGTON — Fool's errand or heroic stand?
The bipartisan compromise on Wednesday to avoid a financial default and end a 16-day partial government shutdown cast a spotlight on Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, who had precipitated the crises with their demand that President Barack Obama gut his 3-year-old health care law.
Senate Republicans who repeatedly had warned the two about their quixotic move took little pleasure in saying "I-told-you-so." The final deal hardly nicked the health care law while the shutdown and near default left the GOP reeling.
"Our numbers have gone down, Obamacare's somehow mysteriously have gone up. And other than that, this has been great," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., with a heavy dose of gallows humor. "The way we're behaving and the path we've taken in the last couple of weeks leads to a marginalized party in the eyes of the American people."
Cruz, a freshman who engaged in a 21-hour talkathon and egged on House Republicans for the fight, was unapologetic.
"This battle will continue to provide real relief for the millions of Americans who are hurting, who right now still don't have a voice in the United States Senate," said Cruz, surrounded by a pack of reporters.
His defiance has been wildly cheered by outside conservative groups that have made money on the months-long dispute and the far right flank that hails Cruz and Lee for what they call a principled, courageous stand.
Cruz, a potential presidential candidate in 2016, has seized the headlines and collected nearly $800,000 for his political action committee in the past three months.
"I think Ted Cruz and Mike Lee did exactly the job that those of us who helped them get elected" wanted them to do, said Drew Ryun of the Madison Project, one of the first conservative organizations to back Cruz last year in his long-shot Senate bid.
Among Senate Republicans, Cruz and Lee are near pariahs, publicly slammed for a tactic that has taken a heavy toll on the GOP's standing and privately criticized for helping outside groups targeting Republican incumbents before next year's congressional elections.
The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll showed three-quarters of Americans disapproving of the way congressional Republicans were handling the budget.
"What did I say three weeks ago, what did I say a month ago, it was a fool's errand," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., waving a copy of the latest poll for reporters clustered in the Senate basement earlier this week. "I knew that it was going to be a disaster and it is a disaster."
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a fierce opponent of the health care law, called the effort to unravel the law a "fantasy."
Compromise has never been part of the vocabulary for Lee, who was elected in 2010, and Cruz, a member of the Senate for some 10 months. The two have been relegated to the sidelines during the Senate negotiations. Neither was part of a bipartisan group that jump-started talks. The two even skipped Tuesday's weekly closed-door Republican luncheon.
Further riling the GOP is the reality that shutdown and the default threat have overshadowed the problem-plagued rollout of the health care markets on Oct. 1 despite Republican efforts to highlight the programs' woes.
In private, Republicans have been dismissive and confrontational with Cruz, according to lawmakers and congressional aides.
At one meeting, Cruz presented his own poll numbers and argued that Republicans weren't suffering despite the overwhelming evidence suggesting they were, prompting eye-rolling from his colleagues.
At a subsequent meeting, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., asked whether Cruz would disavow efforts by the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group founded by former South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint that has been running ads in states with GOP incumbents, challenging them to support the "defund Obamacare" quest.
McConnell, who faces similar ads in his state as he seeks a sixth term next year, joined with Ayotte in questioning Cruz, who was noncommittal.
More recently, the Texas senator insisted that Senate Republicans could force a vote on a House-passed bill to ease the pain of the shutdown for military veterans, seemingly unaware of Senate rules. He didn't give a convincing explanation how that could be done, considering that the Republican Senate minority has no power to set the agenda. Cruz appeared to be resting his hopes on a strategic stumble by Reid, a 26-year Senate veteran.
Yet for all the internal back-biting, Cruz stands as the Teflon tea partyer, winning over conservatives.
At the Values Voter Summit this past weekend, an annual gathering of social conservatives and evangelicals, participants echoed Cruz and Lee's determination not to back down.
Lee brought activists to their feet when he said he was still working with Cruz to strip money from the law.
"We make no apologies. We stand with you," Lee said, drawing loud applause.
In imploring conservatives to remain vigilant, Cruz quoted the 1995 film "The Usual Suspects," and Keyser Soze's assessment that the "the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn't exist." Cruz' variation: "the greatest trick the left has ever played is to convince conservatives we cannot win."
Cruz won the organization's straw poll on Saturday with 42 percent, well ahead of former presidential candidate Rick Santorum and Dr. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon.
Dennis Bussey, of Richmond, Va., said many conservatives are searching for a new standard-bearer and he was impressed by Cruz's reception.
"We're looking for someone — maybe not a hero but maybe we do need a hero," he said.
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas, Andrew Taylor and Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.