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Cruz Plays a Dangerous Game of ‘Shutdown Chicken’

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is beginning to look like the Eddie Haskell of the conservative movement.

It's easy to imagine that, in private moments, House Speaker John Boehner watches events like the press conference Cruz held with a number of hard-right House Republicans on Wednesday, and feels like a father who wishes his kids would stop hanging out with that older boy down the street who keeps getting them into trouble.

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The Texas Senator, who almost single-handedly persuaded House Republicans to shut down the government in 2013 – with disastrous political results – is back at it in the waning days of the 113th Congress. With the ability of federal agencies to spend funds appropriated by Congress set to expire next week, Cruz is pressing his fellow Republicans to adopt legislation that would virtually guarantee another shutdown over President Obama's executive action on immigration.

Ted Cruz Squawk box, Ted Cruz CNBC, Ted Cruz
Stefanie Smith | CNBC

Cruz and some of the House's most stridently anti-immigration voices, including Reps. Michelle Bachman (R-MI) and Steve King (R-IA) stepped in front of the cameras Wednesday to call for immediate action to cut funding for agencies that enforce the country's immigration laws.

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Boehner (R-OH) and the Republican leadership have been very critical of the president's decision to temporarily shield about 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, and they have put forward a plan that would fund the majority of the government through September of 2015. Their plan would also provide short-term funding for the elements of the government that enforce immigration laws.

The idea is that, when Republicans have full control of Congress in January, they will be able to use the appropriations process to demand major concessions from the president.

However, that's not good enough for Cruz who has been arguing very publicly that even temporarily funding the agencies that enforce immigration laws is an unacceptable compromise. Cruz says Republicans ought to move immediately to block all funding that could be used to support the president's executive action.

In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, he said the November midterm elections validated his position. "These elections were a referendum on amnesty, and the American people overwhelmingly indicated they do not support a lawless amnesty decreed by the president. What I'm urging Republicans to do is to do what we said we would do and honor the commitments we made to the voters."

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Of course, if the House were to reject the leadership's proposal to postpone a fight over immigration enforcement until next year by demanding immediate defunding of the Department of Homeland Security and its enforcement programs, the Senate would never accept it, and the result would likely be another government shutdown.

Cruz was a major architect of the 2013 shutdown, taken in protest of the Obama administration's implementation of the Affordable Care Act. The public reaction to that shutdown was toxic, and the prospect of a repeat is giving some members of the GOP pause.

On Wednesday, Cruz blithely predicted that his advice would not lead inevitably to a government shutdown, and that even if it did, the consequences of any shutdown would fall on Congressional Democrats and President Obama.

Asked by CNN's Dana Bash about the likelihood of his proposals leading to a shutdown, he said, "It only will if Harry Reid decides he wants a shutdown, which it seems Harry Reid and President Obama are very eager about that prospect."

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Cruz, like the disingenuous Haskell of "Leave it to Beaver" fame, pays little or no personal price for goading the members of a body in which he does not serve into shutting down the federal government. He will never have to vote on it because the Democratically controlled Senate likely won't even consider any measures along the lines of those he is advocating.

That is, of course, precisely why he has been directing his efforts at the House Republican conference – a more conservative group than even the Senate's GOP contingent.

While Cruz may be successful in forcing a confrontation in the final weeks of this Congress, how a legislature less skewed toward hard-right partisans will assess his grandstanding in 2015 is an open question.