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Why is Ted Cruz going to Mandela's memorial service?

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
December 10, 2013 -- Updated 1610 GMT (0010 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is traveling with 22 members of Congress to South Africa
  • The only other Republican attending is Rep. Aaron Schock
  • He received vocal backlash for posting condolences for Nelson Mandela

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts, was a member of the congressional delegation traveling to South Africa for Nelson Mandela's memorial services. McGovern was not part of the delegation.

Washington (CNN) -- What do tea party aligned Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington state have in common?

Not a whole lot. But they are traveling to South Africa together to attend Nelson Mandela's memorial service.

The December 10 service at the Johannesburg soccer stadium will feature U.S. political luminaries, including President Barack Obama and former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

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Cruz's office did not indicate the freshman Senator has any connection to Mandela, but Cruz said in a statement that he was "honored" to be able to attend the event.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, congressional Democrats to commemorate Mandela in South Africa

Cruz is the only senator on the taxpayer-funded trip. He is with 22 members of Congress, mostly from the Congressional Black Caucus, which organized the trip that House Speaker John Boehner authorized.

On the 20-hour flight, Cruz could sit near the only other Republican to attend, Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois. Schock said he was "humbled" to be asked by Boehner to lead the delegation and represent House Republicans.

Or Cruz could sit near civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and other members of the CBC, who tend to have more liberal political leanings.

Secret Service prepares for Obama's last-minute trip to South Africa

Cruz seems like the odd person out. The 42-year-old freshman firebrand has made a name for himself in the Senate, most recently for his filibuster to defund the Affordable Care Act.

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said the House-organized trip was "opened to the Senate."

"We notified all Senate offices of the quick availability. Senator Cruz requested to go on the trip," Stewart said.

When Cruz posted a note of condolence on his Facebook page last week, saying Mandela "will live in history as an inspiration for defenders of liberty around the globe," angry commenters blasted him for praising the South African leader, who died last week at 95.

Seliqua Bodina wrote, "Wow you stepped in it this time." And Dan Noxon said, "Why don't all you Mandela lovers head on over to South Africa and see what's going on now that 'Mandela's people' have control of the nation .... get out and mix with the people, experience what life is really like. Especially if you're white."

Told about Cruz's trip, Republican strategist, John Feehery, said he was "speechless." But then he said, "Good for him."

"Sometimes the best way to be a profile in courage is by taking on the nut jobs," Feehery said, referring to the ugly comments Cruz got last week.

Considered a potential 2016 presidential candidate, Cruz could benefit politically from the trip. Feehery said there is very little political risk in going and possibly a lot to gain.

"You look like a statesman; you make invaluable contacts, since every important person in the world is going to be there," Feehery said.

A politically and personally challenging moment for Cruz could be when Cuban President Raul Castro speaks at the service.

Cruz's dad is from Cuba but fled at the age of 18 and Cruz is a vocal critic of the Castro regime, especially of former President Fidel Castro.

On Mandela, Cruz said, "He nobly chose reconciliation instead of retribution -- a legacy for which he will be remembered forever."

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