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Did tea party lawmakers win the great debt debate? They don't think so.

GOP leaders made a point of congratulating the tea party for its role in the debt ceiling debate. 'You've actually won,' Sen. Mitch McConnell said. But the movement sees only a job unfinished.

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Moreover, tea party lawmakers say any cuts produced by the new law could be undone by a future Congress, when the biggest cuts are set to take effect. They pushed hard for a constitutional balanced budget amendment as a requirement for any debt-limit deal. Instead, the debt-limit deal provides for a vote on a balanced budget amendment, without a commitment to actually pass it.

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“If the Congress sworn in in January 2013 felt it had a different mandate, there’s very little in this [debt-limit bill] that couldn’t be changed,” says Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah, another founder of the Senate Tea Party Caucus. “Without a balanced budget amendment, you cannot bind a future Congress.”

An appearance of recklessness

But as the clock ticked down toward a midnight Aug. 2 deadline – after which the US risked its first-ever default – the refusal of many tea party-backed lawmakers to cut a deal appeared reckless.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called them “tea-party Hobbits,” and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona amplified that theme on the floor of the Senate. At a closed meeting with Democrats on Aug. 1, Vice President Joe Biden reportedly said tea party lawmakers had been acting “like terrorists” in the ongoing debt negotiations.

“A result of the tea party direction of this Congress the last few months has been very, very disconcerting, and very unfair to the American people,” Senate majority leader Harry Reid said in a speech on the Senate floor just before the Aug. 2 vote. “It stopped us from arriving at a conclusion much earlier.”

At the 11th hour, tea party opposition almost scuttled a final debt-limit deal in the House, as Speaker John Boehner had to struggle to find votes for a compromise that he hoped could pass the Senate. Conservative activists mobilized to convince new tea party lawmakers that they had, in fact, won and should back the Boehner bill.

“The tea party people think short term. The establishment understands that politics is a long-term struggle,” says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). “This [debt-limit] deal bent the cost curve of government downward, and in five to 10 years it will lead to a different country.”

The ATR’s taxpayer protection pledge – which commits lawmakers to oppose tax hikes or the elimination of tax breaks unless offset by tax cuts elsewhere – played a role in rallying Republicans around opposition to any tax increases in the deal.

But toward the end of the process, Mr. Norquist, along with mainstream conservative commentators, urged tea party activists to declare victory, take the deal, and move on. He says one of the debt deal’s main achievements is that from now on, “every time you want to increase the debt limit, you will have to cut spending.”

“The tea party guys haven’t been to the rodeo,” he says. “They say, ‘We only lasted 4 seconds on the bull.’ We say: ‘This is winning!’ ”

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