Cracks in tea party front emerge in House vote on budget deal

The House overwhelmingly passed a budget deal that many tea partyers called odious. It suggests that a new generation of conservatives has concluded that 'shutdown politics' don't work.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) of Ohio walks to the chamber Thursday as the House holds final votes before leaving for the holiday recess at the Capitol in Washington.

Thursday’s overwhelming House approval of the Bipartisan Budget Act offers the first major evidence of cracks in the tea party "no compromise" stand, at least on high-stakes legislation.

The final vote was 332 to 94, with 169 Republicans backing the bill that many conservatives saw as a capitulation, while only 62 Republicans voted against it. That represents a reversal from two important fiscal votes earlier this year – to end the government shutdown in October and to avoid the "fiscal cliff" in January. Both of those votes were also seen as concessions by hardline tea partyers, and most House Republicans voted against those compromises – by wide margins. They passed only because of Democratic support.

But this time, about half of House Republicans who identify themselves as part of the tea party caucus swung over to vote with the majority of their colleagues. The modest two-year deal will avert a potential government shutdown in January and next fall – restoring a semblance of budget calm to the turbulence that culminated in the October government shutdown. It is expected to pass the Senate next week.

The agreement is “a turning point in that Republicans are recognizing that shutdown politics is a loser, which a lot of them didn’t understand before,” says John Pitney Jr., a congressional expert at Claremont McKenna College in California.

Still, Mr. Pitney cautions, today’s vote is “a turn into reality. It’s not a turn into Utopia.”

Stark differences still separate the two parties, and any progress on big issues – say, immigration or tax reform – is likely to be small, much like this agreement.

The deal was forged by Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin and Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington. It provides immediate, partial relief of $63 billion from across-the-board automatic spending cuts – known as the "sequester" – to the military and other domestic programs. It covers that cost over the longer term with $85 billion in savings, gained from other spending cuts and increased fees. The net effect is a small reduction to the deficit – $23 billion over the next 10 years.

The budget deal does not accomplish the big goals of both parties – tackling the debt by reforming expensive entitlements like Medicare and Social Security (what the GOP wanted) or raising revenue by closing corporate tax loopholes (what the Democrats wanted). Nor does it extend unemployment insurance that is expected to expire for 1.3 million Americans later this month – a bitter disappointment to Democrats.

Still, “It’s doing what the American people expect us to do,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, arguing for the bill on the House floor. “And that’s coming together and finding common ground.”  

Tea party conservatives fear that this agreement will cause them to lose ideological ground – and standing with their constituents.

Conservatives who swept into Congress in 2010 over Obamacare are angry that Republicans are even partially lifting the sequester caps without getting any entitlement reform in return. And they don’t believe in the promised long-term cuts that are part of the deal. The cuts will never come to pass, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a tea party favorite from Kansas who voted against the deal, said in an interview. Future savings will be sidelined, just as the sequester is now being altered.

Meanwhile, if Speaker Boehner is planning to turn his back on House conservatives, “then he’s playing with fire,” says Representative Huelskamp. “When conservatives stay home, then Republicans lose” on Election Day.

Boehner, however, is clearly exasperated with the ideological purity of some in his caucus. Thursday, in remarks that reflected an I’ve-had-it-up-to-here sentiment, he said that outside conservative groups that opposed the deal before it was even officially unveiled, and that urged Republicans to vote against it, “have lost all credibility.”

“I came here to cut the size of government. That's exactly what this bill does. And why conservatives wouldn't vote for this is – or [why they would] criticize the bill – is beyond any recognition I can come up with,” he said.

He went on to say how these outside groups misled Republicans, resulting in the shutdown disaster.

“You know, they pushed … to shut down the government,” the speaker recalled at a press conference before the vote. “Most of you know, that wasn’t exactly the strategy that I had in mind.”

It was a rather remarkable admission that the speaker had, essentially, ceded control to a faction of Republicans – that his “big tent” style of party inclusiveness in running the House had spectacularly failed the Republicans, as post-shutdown opinion polls showed. When questioned about whether he was now asking these groups – Heritage Action, Club for Growth, and Americans for Prosperity, for example – to shut down, he answered: “I don’t care what they do.”

What this means for how the House moves forward from here is probably a matter of degrees.

"The tea party is still around. It's just they they recognize that an adjustment of strategy and tactics is in order," Pitney says. "They still have the goal of reducing the size of government," but they've learned that "you can't do that by shutting the government down. They learned what we learn as we get older: One step at a time."

And on big issues like the shutdown and the fiscal cliff, Boehner had already signaled his willingness to run counter to the tea party. What was new was the the strength of the rhetoric he employed against insurgent conservative groups – and the response he got from his Republicans. Yet even if the speaker is willing to put some more distance between himself and the agenda of these groups, don’t look for anything big to come out of this Congress.

Says Ptiney: “We’re in a period of lowered expectations where avoiding Armageddon looks pretty good.”

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