WASHINGTON – The Republicans’ clear defeat in the budget-debt brawl has widened the rift between the Grand Old Party and the blossoming tea party movement that helped revive it.
Implored by House Speaker John Boehner to unite and “fight another day” against President Barack Obama and Democrats, Republicans instead intensified attacks on one another, an ominous sign in advance of more difficult policy fights and the 2014 midterm elections.
The tea party movement spawned by the passage of Obama’s health care overhaul three years ago put the GOP back in charge of the House and in hot pursuit of the law’s repeal. The effort hit a wall this month in the budget and debt fight, but tea partyers promised to keep up the effort.
Whatever the future of the troubled law, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell vowed he would not permit another government shutdown.
“I think we have now fully acquainted our new members with what a losing strategy that is,” McConnell said in an interview with The Hill newspaper.
Tea party Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas told ABC News he wouldn’t rule out using the tactic again, when the same budget and debt questions come up next year.
“I will continue to do anything I can to stop the train wreck that is Obamacare,” Cruz said.
That divide defined the warring Republican factions ahead of the midterm elections, when 35 seats in the Democratic-controlled Senate and all 435 seats in the Republican-dominated House will be on the ballot. In the nearer term, difficult debates about immigration and farm policy loom, along with another round of budget and debt talks.
The animosity only intensified as lawmakers fled Washington this week for a few days.
The Twitterverse crackled with threats, insults and the names of the 27 GOP senators and 87 GOP House members who voted for the leadership’s agreement that reopened the government and raised the nation’s borrowing limit. Republicans got none of their demands, keeping only the spending cuts they had won in 2011.
Within hours, TeaParty.net tweeted a link to the 114 lawmakers, tagging each as a Republican in name only who should be turned out of office: “Your 2014 (hashtag)RINO hunting list!”
“We shouldn’t have to put up with fake conservatives like Mitch McConnell,” read a fundraising letter Thursday from the Tea Party Victory Fund Inc.
Another group, the Senate Conservatives Fund, announced it was endorsing McConnell’s GOP opponent, Louisville, Ky., businessman Matt Bevin.
“Mitch McConnell has the support of the entire Washington establishment and he will do anything to hold on to power,” the group, which raised nearly $2 million for tea party candidates in last year’s elections, announced. “But if people in Kentucky and all across the country rise up and demand something better, we’re confident Matt Bevin can win this race.”
The same group pivoted to the Mississippi Senate race, where Republican Thad Cochran is weighing whether to seek a seventh term. Cochran voted for the McConnell-Reid deal, so the Senate Conservatives Fund endorsed a primary opponent, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a private attorney the group says “will fight to stop Obamacare,” “is not part of the Washington establishment” and “has the courage to stand up to the big spenders in both parties.”
There were more tea party targets: Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina and Lamar Alexander in Tennessee also are seeking re-election.
To her Facebook friends, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin posted: “We’re going to shake things up in 2014. Rest well tonight, for soon we must focus on important House and Senate races. Let’s start with Kentucky, which happens to be awfully close to South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi.”
Opponents of the tea party strategy to make “Obamacare” the centerpiece of the budget fight seethed over what they said was an exercise in self destruction. Many clamored for Boehner and McConnell, the nation’s highest-ranking Republicans, to impose some discipline, pointing to polls that showed public approval of Congress plummeting to historic lows and that most Americans blamed Republicans for the government shutdown.
A Pew Research Center poll released this week showed public favorability for the tea party dropped to its lowest level since driving the Republican takeover of the House in the 2010 elections. An AP-Gfk poll showed that 70 percent now hold unfavorable views of the tea party.
And yet, House Republican leaders tried again and again to resolve the standoff the tea party’s way – by demanding limits on Obamacare in exchange for reopening the government – until they ran of options and accepted the bipartisan deal.
“When your strategy doesn’t work, or your tactic doesn’t work, you lose credibility in your conference,” said Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., referring to the tea partyers’ tactics. “Clearly the leadership followed certain members’ tactics, certain members’ strategies, and they proved not to be all that successful. So, I would hope that we learn from the past.”
“I do believe the outside groups have really put us in this position,” said Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., referring to the Heritage Foundation’s political campaign arm and other organizations demanding fealty to their ideology. Those groups “have worked in conjunction with members of Congress and with tea party groups pushing a strategy that was never going to work.”
Tea partyers hold a contrary view. Boehner, they say, solidified his standing as the GOP’s leader by holding the line against compromise as long as he did. And the standoff, they add, has increased their movement’s clout.
“I think it builds credibility, because I think Democrats did not think that we would press this,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La. “And now they know that we will, and that we might do it again.”