Senator Ted Cruz 'Obamacare' fight: Texas Republican begins marathon protest speech on Senate floor

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz took to the Senate floor on Tuesday afternoon for remarks on the shutdown debate that could potentially last through the night -- a dramatic step in defense of his high profile, controversial plan to prevent any funding for Obamacare.

"I intend to speak in support of defunding Obamacare until I am no longer able to stand," he said. "All across this country Americans are suffering because of Obamacare. Obamacare isn't working."

While Cruz's remarks alone do not constitute a filibuster -- the clock is already ticking on the Senate's first key procedural vote on the matter -- they highlight the high stakes now involved in the resolution of the standoff.

GOP infighting over how best to prevent a government shutdown while defunding Obamacare escalated further on Tuesday morning, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, publicly dismissed the more confrontational strategy being pushed by Cruz, a tea party hero.

Cruz has put himself at odds with a number of senior Senate Republicans by trying to prevent the chamber from taking up the government funding bill passed last week by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

Cruz supports the House bill, which removes funding for the implementation of President Barack Obama's health care law, but doesn't want to give Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Senate Democrats a chance to amend the measure by restoring Obamacare funding.

Some observers believe Reid will do exactly that, and send the amended bill back to the House with little or no time to spare before a post-September 30 shutdown. House Republicans would then be forced to either pass the bill -- and fund Obamacare -- or take responsibility for the shutdown.

Cruz's GOP critics believe his strategy is politically suicidal, arguing there is no way to stop Obamacare as long as Democrats maintain control of the Senate and Obama himself remains in the White House. They believe that trying to do so by forcing a shutdown -- or preventing a hike in the debt ceiling next month -- will backfire by harming the economy and damaging the Republican brand.

Some, like McConnell, would at least like the opportunity to force vulnerable Democrats to cast a politically tough vote on the House plan.

"I don't think that filibustering a bill that defunds Obamacare is the best route to defunding Obamacare," McConnell, R-Kentucky, said on the Senate floor. "All it does is shut down the government and keep Obamacare funded, and none of us want that."

Republicans have "a rare opportunity to defund this law with a simple majority," McConnell added. "We should have that vote."

McConnell argued he was giving Democrats "a second chance."

"Do they stand with the people of their states who do not want this (health care) law to be implemented, or do they double down on this failed experiment?" he asked. "That's the question."

For his part, Reid announced Tuesday morning that the Senate's first key procedural vote in the shutdown showdown will take place early afternoon on Wednesday -- five days before the partial shutdown would otherwise start to take effect.

"Just as the economy begins to gain steam, some Republicans in Congress seem determined to derail four years of progress," Reid said on the Senate floor.

"They're obsessed with defunding health care. They're pushing us closer and closer to a government shutdown that would tank the economy."

Reid needs 60 votes in order to formally kick off debate on the House bill. There are 54 members of the Democratic caucus, which means at least six Republicans will be required to move forward with the process.

Once the formal debate has started, however, Reid will only need 50 votes to make changes to the measure.

"Any senator who votes (to move forward with debate on the House bill) is voting to give Harry Reid the authority to fund Obamacare," Cruz told CNN's Dana Bash on Monday, firing a warning shot at his fellow Senate Republicans.

It remains to be seen how much pressure Cruz and his tea party backers will ultimately put on other Republicans. McConnell is up for reelection in 2014, and his conservative GOP primary challenger wasted no time Tuesday blasting the minority leader for opposing Cruz's stance.

"Like so many other crucial fights, Mitch McConnell has caved to Harry Reid on Obamacare and is refusing to fight to defund this disastrous legislation," Matt Bevin said.

"I am proud to support conservatives like Senator Ted Cruz in his fight to defund Obamacare, and I promise the people of Kentucky: I will never cave to Harry Reid."

CNN's Ted Barrett and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report

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