The 60-vote threshold in the Senate needs to get nuked, Sen. Ted Cruz told the Washington Examiner in an hour-long interview in his office Jan. 23.

Cruz contended that Democrats were going to abolish the filibuster anyway, and so Republicans ought to beat them to the punch. Absent that step, Cruz argued that Republicans can use reconciliation to repeal and replace both Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill. He even has a plan for a regulatory reform with only 50 Senate votes.

Cruz also discussed his role in the Senate, his relationship with Mitch McConnell, whether he thinks a second special counsel should be named, why Iran is scarier than North Korea, and what he thinks of Trump's tweets.

Washington Examiner: What’s the most interesting things you expect in 2018?

Cruz: We need to be driving our priorities. Historically, it’s quite rare to have a Republican president and Republican majorities in both houses. These windows of opportunity don’t occur frequently. And they may not last long, so we should not fritter away one day of having majorities in Congress and a Republican president. We need to be driving forward on the same broader objectives.

But what would I like to see done in 2018? The biggest unfinished task is Obamacare. We need to finish the job. I still believe we can do that. I still believe it is possible to bring Republicans together. I think we got very close last time, and that’s something [to which] I’m continuing to devote a lot of time. Trying to unite our fractious conference and build consensus to get at least 50 Republicans on the same page.

I also think Dodd-Frank puts enormous regulatory costs on the economy. [It] has been crushing the small banks and community banks [which are] going out of business in record numbers. And it’s small banks and community banks that provide the capital for small businesses. Two-thirds of all new jobs come from small businesses. If you drive the capital from small businesses, you get a lot fewer jobs. For both Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, the only way to proceed with serious reform or repeal legislation is through reconciliation. And so, my hope is we’ll take up another budget reconciliation in 2018 to deliver on both Obamacare and Dodd-Frank.

There is another idea that I’m urging the administration to do, which is to use [North American Free Trade Agreement] renegotiations as an avenue for reg[ulatory] reform.

If you look at what we accomplished in 2017, virtually everything accomplished was done through procedural vehicles that could pass with 50 votes. We did virtually nothing that required 60 votes, because we’re facing a blue wall of filibuster on everything.

So, if we are going to not waste this opportunity, we need to look for what are avenues to legislate with 50 votes. And NAFTA renegotiation provides a powerful avenue because – what I’m urging the administration is – [to] use that to codify serious reg reform. Codify something like the REINS [Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny] Act ... You don’t have to get Mexico or Canada to agree to it, by the way — it’s a commitment that the administration makes on reg reform in NAFTA. And if that’s part of the renegotiation, that in turn goes to Congress under [Trade Promotion Authority] for an expedited up or down vote at a 50-vote threshold. And it can’t be filibustered.

(Graeme Jennings/ Washington Examiner)

Washington Examiner: What your thoughts are on ending the legislative filibuster?

Cruz: This is an issue on which my views have changed. If you had asked me, even a couple of years ago, should we change the legislative filibuster, my answer would have been no. And the reason that I previously opposed changing the legislative filibuster is that I think over time, it has proven to be a small "c" conservative process. It has slowed down the growth of government.

Since World War II, we’ve had three Democratic supermajorities in the Senate. The first gave us the New Deal, the second gave us the Great Society, the third gave us Obamacare and Dodd-Frank.

And two things changed my view. One, this past year, the unprecedented opposition from Democrats. There is nothing in the history of the Senate remotely like what we’re facing right now, which is the filibuster being used on everything. The base of the hard radical-left is demanding, "Fight! Resist!" And so, every substantive piece of legislation — virtually everyone — gets filibustered.

Tax reform, we just passed. Tax reform has historically been a bipartisan endeavor. When Reagan passed tax reform, Tip O’Neill, a Democrat, was speaker of the House. In the House — ’81 and ’86 — the Reagan tax cuts were led by Phil Gramm, who was then a conservative Democrat from Texas. In the Senate, one of the leaders in ’86 was Bill Bradley, a liberal Democrat from New Jersey. The tax cut we just passed had zero Democratic votes in the House and zero Democratic votes in the Senate. That is a manifestation of how radicalized Washington Democrats are right now.

And so, the filibuster in previous Senates has operated as a constraint to some of the more partisan, more extreme legislation, but not an impassable barrier to anything ever, ever, ever happening.

I no longer believe it is a meaningful constraint on Democrats. I think if the Democrats ever regain the majority, they’ll end the legislative filibuster. That’s where their conference is. And it doesn’t make any sense for it to be a one-way ratchet – for us to have our hands tied, and for them to be able to pass with a simple majority.

That being said, we don’t have the votes in the Republican conference to do it. So, although I support it — and we’re actually having more and more serious conversations within the conference about it, there is more support for doing it — but at this point, we’re nowhere close to having 50 votes to do it.

Washington Examiner: How do you see your role in the Senate?

Cruz: I do think I’m in a relatively unusual position in the Senate, of being able to speak to conservatives with real credibility. But also being able to speak to moderates, speak to leadership, speak to the president, speak to the administration, and try to bring everyone together. And say all right, what are our common goals? Where do we share a common ground?

With the tax bill, I was very gratified there were a number of big victories that I fought hard for in the tax bill. The only amendment adopted on the floor of the Senate that added anything to the tax bill was the amendment that I introduced. Expanding college 529 savings plans to include K through 12 education. It was the most significant federal school choice legislation that’s ever passed. And we ended up, the vote occurred after midnight, with considerable drama. In fact, the way the vote went down, it was clear it was going to be close.

We lost early on two Republicans who voted no: Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski. I was talking to Lisa and trying to persuade her to reconsider. Tim Scott was helping me ...

And so, Tim and I were both talking to Lisa and trying to make the case on the merits and as we’re doing it, behind us Joe Manchin comes down and votes yes. And there’s an audible gasp in the well of the Senate. So, when we lost two Republicans, Senate floor staff picked up the phone and called the vice president’s office, and said, “Mr. Vice President, we may need your vote.” He was up at the residence. He got in the motorcade and began heading down. When Manchin votes, they pick up the phone and call the vice president’s office, said, “Mr. Vice President, we got Manchin, it looks like we don’t need you after all.” So, he turns the motorcade around, starts heading back to the residence.

Manchin goes back to his desk, and a horde of Democrats descend on him. We can see them just yelling at him. After five minutes of being physically beaten with 2x4s, Manchin sheepishly walks forward and flips his vote to a no. At which point, the floor staff picks up the phone a third time, calls the vice president’s office said, “We need your vote.” He turns the motorcade around, yet again. If you guys were on Mass. Ave. after midnight that night, I apologize for the traffic nightmare. And 15 minutes later, he walked on the floor, and the ayes being 50 and the nays being 50, he cast a vote in favor of it, and it passed.

(AP Photos)

Washington Examiner: How do you think Mitch McConnell is doing as a majority leader?

Cruz: In 2017, we accomplished major priorities. I’m glad for that. Mitch and I have worked together closely to accomplish those priorities. My hope is in 2018, we will go forward and accomplish even more for the men and women who elected us. I think we’re more likely to get that done, avoiding the drama of the Washington babble of personalities. I think it’s fair to say that Mitch and I have not always had the best of relationships. But, there’s a job to be done. And the only way we’re going to get that job done is if we manage to bring 50 Republicans together to get on the same page.

Washington Examiner: Do you feel less freedom in the majority?

Cruz: The job is different. Here’s an analogy. When I was fresh out of law school and [my] first job was a law clerk in the Court of Appeals. Second job was a law clerk for Chief Justice [William] Rehnquist. A buddy of mine, who had been my co-clerk on the Court of Appeals, was clerking for [Antonin] Scalia, the same term that I was clerking for Rehnquist. And he was lamenting, near the end of the term, that he had not gotten to work on any of the vituperative Scalia dissents. I mean a Scalia dissent is a masterpiece. I mean a flair for writing, he could flay an imbecilic opinion up and down and sideways in a way that nobody else could.

And my buddy was complaining, “I haven’t gotten to work on any of them.” And I said, “Well, look, that’s because we’ve been writing majorities.” It’s OK to have a nice gory majority that begins with “We hold” and then resolves the issue, the legal issue, correctly.

There’s an analogy to that in the Senate, that in the minority, you are waging battle. In the majority with a president of your party, it’s a different sorta endeavor.

Now, I pick up the phone. Because I actually have someone on the other side who will answer the phone. We are engaged in far more issues in 2017 than we were before. The difference is that if I’ve got a concern with a Cabinet member, a letter is one of the least efficient ways to handle it. If you have someone willing and even eager to work with you, sit down and work with him.

Washington Examiner: In your view, is there a scandal that needs to be exposed to the FBI and the Justice Department related to the election and the investigations of both President Trump and Hillary Clinton? And if so, do you think that it now reaches the level where it would require a special counsel?

Cruz: I think there’s a very serious argument to be made that it’s reached that level. The allegations coming out are deeply concerning. The text messages demonstrating hard partisan attempts are not what one expects or hopes for in an impartial law enforcement agency. Even worse, deleted text messages from a critical time period without explanation, raise serious, serious questions.

Under Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, we saw a hyper-partisan lawless Department of Justice. And many of us are concerned that partisan lawlessness infected the culture of the institution.

The appointment of the special counsel was a serious development, and it is deeply concerning that that office has been filled with partisan Democratic donors — one after the other after the other. That was quite frankly, foolish. With the Obama Justice Department, I repeatedly raised questions about their investigation of the IRS and the IRS targeting American citizens for their First Amendment views. The Obama Justice Department had put in charge of that investigation a major Democratic donor who had given thousands of dollars to Barack Obama and other Democrats.

I repeatedly called then for a special counsel — who at a minimum was not a major Democratic donor — and I did so, actually, through letters. We were talking about letters, multiple letters. I did so through hearings. Both Holder and Lynch refused to appoint a special counsel. We fast forward to now, once again, it seems the prosecutors and investigators, too many of them, are major Democratic donors.

If you’re going to have a law enforcement proceeding, it should be people who are not partisans with a partisan ax to grind. And there are many and troubling indicia that we are seeing partisans who seem to leak to the press, with vigor and energy, and that’s remarkable. So, yes, I think a strong case can be made for a special counsel.

Washington Examiner: What can you do on Obamacare?

Cruz: Forging a consensus on Obamacare has proven incredibly difficult. I would note this is exactly why, in 2013, I urged Republicans to stand together and try to stop it then. Because it was obvious once it went into effect, it would prove unbelievably difficult to unwind. We’re seeing that manifestation right now.

The way we get to 50 is if we focus on exactly what you just talked about — lowering premiums. I think lowering premiums is a win-win for everybody. It’s a win for conservatives; it’s a win for moderates. The number one reason people despise Obamacare is premiums have skyrocketed. The average family premium has gone up over $5,000 a year. If we’re lowering premiums, that is a big victory.

You’re right, there are some who are pushing to do so through so-called [cost-sharing reduction] payments. Essentially massive taxpayer bailouts for insurance companies. I think doing that without addressing the underlying problem for consumers is a mistake. I think it’s possible, some structure like that can be part of a broader repeal effort. But doing that freestanding, I think, would be unwise. I also think the way to get there is not to start off with a big comprehensive behemoth and try to squeeze everyone in it.

If you want premiums lower, you want more choices, more options, more competition, more consumer freedom. If you want prices higher, you want fewer choices, less options, less competition, less consumer freedom. Which is exactly what Obamacare does. So, much of my focus throughout this debate has been on the Title I regulations driving up the cost of premiums.

Getting to 50 is not going to be easy, but I think it was a central campaign promise Republicans have made for seven years. And we need to keep working until we get the job done.

Washington Examiner: Do you support religious tests for elected office?

Cruz: No

Washington Examiner: Do you support the idea that homosexual behavior should be illegal?

Cruz: No.

Washington Examiner: So do you square that opposition with your endorsement of Roy Moore as a candidate?

Cruz: I don’t know every statement Roy Moore said. I’ve seen the reports on those statements that he referenced. And there are very few politicians, if any, with whom I agree on everything.

In that race, I stayed out of the primary. I did not support any candidates in the primary. I will note that the former chairman of my presidential campaign in Alabama, Mo Brooks, was one of the three candidates. And I repeatedly said Mo is a strong, principled conservative, a tremendous public servant. He did not win the primary. Roy Moore won the primary.

When that occurred, the voters were given a binary choice between Roy Moore and a Democrat, Doug Jones, whose views across the board were contrary to the views and values of the people of Alabama. Looking at that binary choice, I made the decision to support the Republican nominee. And so, I endorsed him. Subsequent to that endorsement, the allegations came out against Mr. Moore. Multiple allegations that were serious and had indicia of credibility. Those allegations led me to rescind my endorsement.

And I urged at the time, I said, I don’t know if these allegations are true or not. But, one of two things needs to happen. If they are true, I think Moore should get out of the race now — that’s what I said then — immediately. So that the voters of Alabama have the choice of a strong conservative to represent them in the Senate. Or, if they’re not true, then Moore needs to do a much better job of refuting these allegations and taking them on.

Now the fact that they elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate is not good for 28 million Texans. It’s not good for the country to have yet another hard-left vote that votes with Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders in support of policies that I think are manifestly harmful. But that was a decision for the voters of Alabama, and they made their decision.

In general elections in particular, voters often typically are given a binary choice. And so, I’ve supported a number of candidates in general elections with whom I disagree substantially. Because I think on balance they would be better than the alternative.

I’ll note in the presidential, it took me considerable time to make the decision to endorse Donald Trump. I had significant disagreements with him. When I did ultimately endorse Trump, I wrote a lengthy explanation as to why I was doing so. And it came down principally to between Trump and Hillary Clinton. I felt the policies that Hillary would implement would be deeply harmful for the country. And the policies that Trump was campaigning on I believed would be far more beneficial. And I will say in the first year, on substance, I think that assessment was proven correct.

Washington Examiner: Do you think that things Trump sometimes says and tweets are helpful or harmful in your efforts to pass conservative policy?

Cruz: My standard rule of thumb in Washington when reporters come up to the Capitol is that I don’t comment on tweets, and I don’t comment on the random comment of the day. There are plenty of other people happy to do so. I’m happy to talk about substance. I’m happy to talk about policy. But I don’t think there’s any value to getting drawn into the political circus.

Washington Examiner: Has the president’s newness to policy issues gotten in the way of legislative success?

Cruz: What I’ll say is that I have spent a great deal of time in 2017 and 2018 trying to encourage the president and encourage the administration to move in a positive direction. And trying to discourage them from moving in a negative direction. And on policy and substance, I’ve been very pleased with the results.

So, yes, the president says many things I would not say. We have a historic opportunity, and we can’t blow it. And so, I’m going to try to do everything I can to encourage the president of the administration to move into a positive direction.

Washington Examiner: With respect to Iran, what are the next steps you take from here? And secondly, are you satisfied with the president’s decision to extend the Iran nuclear deal’s conditions and terms?

Cruz: The protests we’ve been seeing in Iran have the potential to be enormously consequential. We’re seeing spectacular courage and bravery. People risking their lives to denounce the ayatollah, to denounce the Islamic regime. It is hard to think of anything that would have a greater positive impact on U.S. national security, and indeed, on safety and security across the globe, than seeing the Iranian regime be toppled. I think it is very important the people of Iran hear and understand that the American people stand with them. That the brutal oppression of the ayatollah and the mullahs is profoundly harmful to them and profoundly harmful to the world.

And so, that resolution is designed to be one step making that point clear to be heard by the women standing in the public square pulling their burkas off and risking torture and death. I mean, you want to talk about incredible courage. The consequences of that with this dictatorial regime could be horrifyingly brutal.

As recently as yesterday, I was speaking with an administration official about what steps we can take to expand the ability of the Iranian people to speak out on social media on the Internet to get around the regime’s effort to block their communication. I have urged the president and urged world leaders to lean in hard and do everything humanly possible to support the Iranian people against this brutal regime.

Now, your question on the Iran deal. This was an area of significant policy disagreement on the presidential campaign trail. When I was campaigning for president, I promised on January 20th that I would rip to shreds this Iranian deal. I still think that’s the right thing to do. Donald Trump disagreed with me. He said, “No, I won’t rip the deal up. Instead, I’ll vigorously enforce it.” OK, we had an election. He won. What I have been doing since the president was elected is encouraging him to do exactly that. All right, you promised to vigorously enforce it.

The single greatest national security threat to the United States is the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. And this deal has resulted in billions of dollars going to the world’s leading state financer of terrorism. Billions of American dollars going to fund terrorists that will murder Americans, will murder Israelis, will murder our allies. And the deal on its face has such weak and laughable inspection and verification mechanisms that it is designed to allow the Iranians to cheat, both developing nuclear weapons and also continuing to develop ICBM technology.

Washington Examiner: How should we handle North Korea?

Cruz: North Korea today is the most dangerous place on the face of the planet. You have an unstable dictator with a significant arsenal of nuclear weapons. And a repeatedly stated desire to use those nuclear weapons. Over the past year, I have endeavored to lay out a comprehensive approach to how we should be dealing with North Korea. One element of that approach is using every tool we have — economic, diplomatic — to put pressure on North Korea.

Last year, I introduced legislation that passed into law that required the State Department to report on whether North Korea is a state sponsor of terrorism. And that legislation passed, and the State Department, in response, designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. That was important. Important for triggering additional sanctions. Important for pressuring our allies to further cut North Korea off.

The country with the greatest influence on North Korea is China. And the Trump administration has tried vigorously to get China to put pressure on North Korea. And there seem to be some modest successes in that regard. That’s not an easy task. China has not always proven trustworthy in negotiations of that sort. But that’s the right direction to keep going.

Another element of responding to North Korea is missile defense. And I have long been a vigorous proponent of increased investments in missile defense. [That includes] ground-based [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense] interceptors, which the administration rightly moved to defend against North Korea. That was a policy step I had been urging President Obama to do for some time, to no avail. But also, investing more in air-based and space-based missile defense. Because our technology right now has a limited portion of the launch trajectory where we can actually intercept and take out an enemy.

And on the Senate Armed Services Committee for several years now, I have pressed and indeed introduced amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act pressing for far more investment in missile defense. I think that’s a critical strategic element to this as well. Because we could face, God forbid, the threat of multiple warheads from North Korea targeting U.S. cities. We just saw an ICBM test recently that appears to show that North Korea can reach any city in the continental United States. That is deeply concerning.

And just as North Korea today is the most dangerous place on the face of the planet, the instant Iran gets nuclear weapons, it will become even more dangerous because Kim Jong Un is unstable, unpredictable, a megalomaniacal narcissist. But it at least may be possible to have some measure of rational deterrence with Kim Jong Un. Because the one thing he appears to want is to stay in power. And I think it is essential that he understands that if he ever uses a nuclear weapon, that day and that instance, his regime will be over. Iran, what’s far more dangerous, is the ayatollah is a religious zealot who glorifies death and suicide.

And I think if Iran ever acquires nuclear weapons, the odds are unacceptably high that they would use those nuclear weapons in the skies of Tel Aviv or New York or Los Angeles. And rational deterrents which might work with Kim Jong Un has a far lesser chance of working with a religious zealot, because the ayatollah could use a nuclear weapon in Israel to murder millions of Jews. He would know the consequence would be, likely, millions of Iranians would lose their lives as well. And the danger with a religious zealot is that he might be perfectly willing to make that trade.

Washington Examiner: Just last week, there were allegations that the president had carried on an affair. Do you think this president is getting a mulligan from social conservatives and from evangelicals, and does he deserve one?

Cruz: This town is consumed with the scandal of the day, with this allegation about the president, that allegation about the president. He said this, he said that. I understand that. That sells a lot of newspapers. It drives a lot of eyeballs on cable news. I think we have a unique moment in time to actually get the job done and deliver on promises we made. So, I’ve got nothing to say on that. I will leave those issues and those topics to somebody else. My focus is tax reform, reg reform, Obamacare, judges, deliver on promises.