WASHINGTON — Very few Americans know how close the country came to catastrophe last week.
The final tally shows that the Senate voted by a wide margin Wednesday, 67-31, to break Sen. Ted Cruz's filibuster of an increase in the debt limit, thus avoiding a default on America's full faith and credit.
But 15 minutes after the voting should have ended, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell had apparently secured only two of the five Republican votes he needed to join with all 55 members of the Democratic caucus to pass the measure. He raised three fingers in the air and worked his way among his members, but was met with folded arms and shakes of the head. Looking queasy, he patted his thigh nervously and drummed his fingers. In the hubbub, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., knocked a full glass of water and coaster from McConnell's desk to the floor.
Democrats, watching the spectacle, took the extraordinary step of ordering the Senate clerk not to read aloud the ongoing vote tally to avoid setting off a market panic; because the House had already left on a two-week recess, a failure of this vote would have left little chance of avoiding default on Feb. 27 when the Treasury runs out of funds.
Watching the chaos from the side of the chamber was the man who caused it: Cruz, his hands in his pants pockets and a satisfied grin on his face. The Texas Republican strolled to the clerk's table to check on the vote count and was met with a look of disgust from Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. And the feeling was widespread: Moments after Cruz walked into the Republican cloakroom, four Republican senators emerged from it and changed their votes to "aye."
Cruz re-emerged from the cloakroom, chewing gum, his hands again in his pockets. He smirked as his colleagues finally overcame his filibuster after a 59-minute struggle.
Cruz's ego trip had come at a high cost. He had forced McConnell, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and other Republicans to cast votes that could hurt them in primaries to weaker general-election candidates, and he had risked getting his party blamed for a default.
The Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page dubbed Cruz "the Minority Maker" for making his GOP colleagues "walk the plank" on a "meaningless debt ceiling vote."
But Cruz doesn't care about all that. Leaving the chamber, he told reporters McConnell's fate would be "ultimately a decision ... for the voters in Kentucky."
His actions suggest Cruz has put himself before his party and even the nation's solvency. And in this sense his actions are typical of the 2016 GOP presidential field. Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Rand Paul are mucking up the gears of government in ways that will earn them favorable attention in the primaries.
Rubio, of Florida, is pushing legislation that would undo Obamacare in such a way that would cause chaos in the insurance market and likely leave tens of millions without health coverage and cost the government billions.
Vying with Cruz to be the most reckless of the 2016 aspirants is Paul, of Kentucky, who in recent days has injected the 1990s Monica Lewinsky scandal into the national debate as a means of discrediting Hillary Clinton. He also claimed her failure to send "reinforcements" to diplomats in Benghazi before they were attacked "should limit Hillary Clinton from ever holding high office." Multiple investigations have confirmed that secretaries of state do not make decisions about security at each diplomatic post.
Now, Paul has politicized his court challenge to the NSA surveillance program. It would have been an important legal case, but Paul pushed aside the constitutional lawyer who had drafted the legislation and abandoned efforts to get a Democratic senator to be a co-plaintiff; instead, he added President Obama's name to the list of defendants, brought in the tea party group FreedomWorks as a plaintiff, and hired failed Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, another tea party politician, to be his lead lawyer.
To nobody's surprise, Paul and Rubio sided with Cruz in Wednesday's debt ceiling filibuster. Had they prevailed, and had 12 of their GOP colleagues not been more responsible, the likely default would have added far more to the national debt than the legislation did. It also would have caused markets to crash, the economy to swoon and American standing to decline.
But for Messrs. Paul, Rubio and Cruz, those aren't the top considerations.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.