Debt ceiling: After 'clean' vote, is tea party defeated or emboldened?

The ballooning federal debt is the tea party's core issue, and the movement feels abandoned by Speaker John Boehner. One tea party leader's response: 'Back to the barricades.' 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio speaks to the media at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 6.

It’s being called the “clean” debt ceiling vote, the first such measure by Congress in three years that allows the federal government to borrow more money with no strings attached. The bill, which suspends the debt ceiling until March 2015, passed the House Tuesday by 221 to 201. Most in the majority were Democrats.

But to tea partyers, who feel abandoned by Republican House Speaker John Boehner, there’s nothing clean about what happened Tuesday. Now, they say, it’s the “Boehner Debt Hike.”

“Are we discouraged? Absolutely,” says Adam Brandon, spokesman for the national tea party group Freedomworks. “Go back to the beginning of the movement. One of the things that people got involved in the political process for was to get debt and spending under control.”

So what next? “Back to the barricades,” Mr. Brandon says.  

If anything, Tuesday’s vote will only embolden the tea party and “liberty” candidates who are ramping up for the midterms – particularly for primary season, which begins in March, in which they are facing off against fellow Republicans, in some cases high-profile incumbents.

The question is, how big is the public that will follow them? And if tea party candidates stand in the general election, will that again cost the GOP seats in its quest to take control of the Senate? Five years after the tea party movement arose in reaction to the massive government spending and bailouts born of the financial crisis of 2008-2009, its future is uncertain. Its public image has been on a long, steady decline, with only 21 percent of Americans viewing it favorably – an all-time low – in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

And Speaker Boehner, after trying to work with the tea party Republicans in his conference, has made it clear he is fed up. On Tuesday, when he allowed the debt ceiling bill to pass with 193 Democratic votes, he gave up on two “rules”: the “Hastert rule,” named for former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R), which states that the majority of the majority (Republicans) must support a bill; and the “Boehner rule,” which mandates a dollar in spending cuts for every dollar the debt ceiling is raised.

For two weeks, Boehner tried to attach measures to the debt ceiling that would force a concession out of the White House. First it was a change to the Affordable Care Act. Then it was approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Finally, the bill contained a measure to restore a cost-of-living adjustment to veterans’ benefits.

President Obama has been adamant that he would not sign a debt ceiling measure with any “add-ons,” and set the Republicans up for public blame if the country came close to breaching its debt limit, which would threaten a catastrophic default on the national debt. The debt limit was reached on Feb. 7, and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has been taking “extraordinary measures” since then to pay the nation’s bills.

Boehner couldn’t get the votes he needed to pass anything but a clean debt ceiling, and on Tuesday morning, in a surprise move, he announced he was giving up.

“We don’t have 218 votes. And when you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing," Boehner told reporters.

To tea partyers, that’s not the point.

“We recognize that Speaker John Boehner was unable to corral a House majority to insist on some budget reform,” Taylor Budowich, executive director of the political action committee Tea Party Express, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, that means the GOP has lost yet another opportunity to prove to the American people that the Republican Party will fight to stop Washington's reckless spending.”

As of Tuesday, the national debt stands at $17.3 trillion. Under the House legislation just passed, which now goes to the Senate, the debt limit will be suspended until March 15, 2015, and will rise to whatever the debt is at that point.

Long before Boehner’s surrender on Tuesday, tea party candidates had given up on the Republican leadership in Congress.

At a forum Monday with reporters at the Freedomworks headquarters in Washington, D.C., five tea party candidates – three House, two Senate –expressed nothing but disdain for their party’s leaders.

“I do support replacing John Boehner as speaker,” said Katrina Pierson, who is running against Rep. Pete Sessions (R) of Texas in the March 4 primary. “There should be a good campaign for those interested – but not Pete Sessions!”

Another candidate, Matt Bevin of Kentucky, was probably thinking about the man he hopes to replace in the Senate – Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican – when he made his assertion about Republican leadership in Washington.

"There's a level of cronyism that is destroying this country,” Mr. Bevin said.

But that seemed to sum up the candidates’ views of leaders on both sides of the Capitol.

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