WASHINGTON – House Republicans rode the tea party tiger to power last fall. Now it's turning on them, forcing party leaders to endure embarrassing delays and unwanted revisions to crucial debt-ceiling legislation.
This tiger did not change it stripes. When tea partyers emerged as a political phenomenon in 2009, they vowed to stand on principle and change the way Washington works. They've kept that promise despite some doubters' predictions they would succumb to the get-along, go-along crowd once they reached Capitol Hill.
That fidelity is now threatening GOP unity and causing headaches for party leaders as they try to negotiate with Democrats in a divided government. With the 2012 campaigns cranking up, some Republicans are re-evaluating the fiery movement that fueled their sweeping victories in 2010.
House Speaker John Boehner's misreading of tea partyers' doggedness this week forced his chagrined team to postpone votes twice on his debt-ceiling bill. Finally, on Friday, Boehner had to amend the bill in ways Democrats openly derided. The events proved "that while the tea party Republicans are a noisy and effective protest movement, they are unfit for governing," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
Said Rep. Steven LaTourette, an Ohio Republican: "We've lost some leverage."
Boehner's original bill to raise the debt ceiling by Tuesday's deadline was already doomed in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where talks of a possible final-hour bipartisan deal were under way. But the House's tea party holdouts forced Boehner to push his bill even further to the right, prompting taunts that it wasn't serious, let alone viable.
Boehner could not secure the votes he needed from conservatives until he accepted an unusual condition for a second debt-limit increase, which would be necessary in a few months. Both chambers of Congress first would have to approve a constitutional amendment requiring balanced budgets, which requires a two-thirds majority in both houses. Some conservatives have long dreamed of such a change. But leaders in both parties acknowledge it is politically unachievable.
Boehner's original bill was already imperiled because it would tie the second debt-ceiling increase to huge mandatory spending cuts, which President Barack Obama rejected. The speaker's allies said the tea partyers' demands make it all the harder to argue that Democrats should seriously consider the House bill.
Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., said Democrats will "feel like they've got a lot more power and influence in this process right now."
The political fractures are reaching into the GOP, and even the tea party movement itself. Some tea party-backed lawmakers embraced Boehner's original bill, drawing fire from the movement's most unyielding wings.
A group called The United West labeled four House Republicans "tea party defectors." One of them was first-term Rep. Allen West of Florida, a highly visible favorite of many tea party factions.
The accusation angered conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, who brought West on her show and defended him. "He understands how to declare victory, even if that victory is incremental," she said. West understands "the limits of one's power when you control one house of Congress."
West said, "One minute they're saying I'm their tea party hero, and what, three or four days later. I'm a tea party defector? That kind of tea party schizophrenia, I'm not going to get involved in it."
GOP Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, who says he will not support a debt limit hike under any circumstances, defended the tea party movement.
"The tea party has been maligned unfairly," Broun said in an interview. "It's about limiting government according to what the Constitution says it should be."
"This is truly a reflection of the strongest political force in America," Broun said.
Even Democrats grudgingly acknowledge that the tea party has pushed national policy toward deeper spending cuts without tax increases. Obama for months insisted that higher tax revenues be part of a debt-reduction package, but Senate Democrats have dropped that bid.
The highly decentralized tea party movement was born amid the fiercely partisan fight that led to passage of Obama's health care overhaul in 2010. At public forums throughout the nation, citizens sharply criticized the plan's reach into private lives, including its requirement that everyone eventually buy health insurance.
The movement, which also decried federal bank bailouts and stimulus programs, played a huge role in last fall's elections, when Republicans regained control of the House after four years in the minority.
Now, some establishment Republicans are wondering if they got more than they bargained for. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, strongly opposed the health care legislation, making common cause with the tea party. But this month the chamber swung solidly behind Boehner's original debt-ceiling bill. It suffered embarrassment with all the other groups and individuals forced to swallow the tea partyers' demands.
Republican campaign strategists are weighing the tea party's valuable energy against the possibility that it might push the party away from mainstream politics, which appeal to crucial independent voters. A Pew Research poll found that 68 percent of American voters want lawmakers to compromise on the debt ceiling and default issue, even it means striking a deal they disagree with. Fewer than one in four said lawmakers should stand by their principles even if it leads to a default on U.S. obligations.
Veteran lawmakers and congressional staffers are struck by the faith — be it admirable or naïve — that many tea party advocates seem to have in what they consider the moral rightness of their ideas. Some GOP staffers privately roll their eyes at accounts of House members insisting that Senate Democrats will suddenly come to their senses and embrace the balanced budget agreement, even though those senators have criticized the proposal for years.
"I sure hope they don't try to take out the balanced budget amendment in the Senate," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga. He refused to vote for the House debt-ceiling bill until it was added.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., barely conceals his disdain for such thinking. The key question, Reid said in a speech Friday, is "will today's Republicans break away from the shrill voice of the tea party and return to the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan?"
When a Democratic leader praises Reagan, it's a sign of how profoundly the tea party movement has influenced the GOP.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Steven Ohlemacher contributed to this report.
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