WASHINGTON – Hard-fought passage of a $1 trillion bipartisan spending bill brings to an end – for now – the era of tea-party-driven budget battles in Congress as Republican leaders part ways with their party’s rebellious hard-liners and look toward new political battles.
Since grass-roots conservatives hoisted Republicans to power in the House with the 2010 midterm election, party leaders can boast that they’ve helped slash government spending to George W. Bush-era levels, even after Democrats increased budgets to help the nation rebound from the recession. Billions of dollars in specialty earmark spending – once commonly used by lawmakers to fund pet projects – are relics of the past.
But the tea party ascent came at a steep price for Republicans, including an unprecedented fracture in party unity and a bruised GOP brand, caused by hardball political tactics that were blamed for October’s widely unpopular 16-day government shutdown.
The failure of these new-style small-government conservatives to block the latest budget package may be a sign of the movement’s waning influence. The legislation easily cleared Congress this week, and President Barack Obama signed it into law Friday afternoon.
The measure funds the government through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. But because the broader budget accord reached last year sets spending levels through 2015, hard-liners have lost the chance to continue the crisis-driven budgeting cycle that has consumed Washington for three years.
But the next act for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, remains ill-defined. Just what, exactly, do the Republicans want to do now?
Conservatives argue that the budget-crunching is far from finished. They remain disappointed that the package did not cut more deeply into federal spending and are pushing to defund Obamacare and revamp safety net programs, including Medicare.
But others in the GOP have had enough. Defense hawks revolted against the deeper military reductions supported by tea party lawmakers. Republican elders grew weary of partisan brinkmanship, which helped drive the party’s public approval ratings to record lows.
As both parties gear up for a midterm election campaign season that will determine the control of Congress, the Republican agenda is at a crossroads.
Boehner, who has struggled to control his House majority, is already trying to nudge members toward other topics, particularly those on which the party can appeal to middle-class voters. At the top of his agenda, he said this week, is repealing Obamacare, cutting taxes and expanding school voucher programs.
More spending cuts were noticeably absent from his priority list, although he acknowledged the progress made in recent years.
“Republicans have forced this administration to hold the line on spending,” Boehner said. “That’s a record to be proud of and it’s helped bring down the budget deficit in a significant way.”
House Republicans won their majority on a pledge to roll back spending to 2008 levels. They largely accomplished that goal, but part of the decline came because Obama’s economic stimulus program ran its course. Their hard-line stance blocked new Democratic efforts for more spending and eventually led to the so-called sequester cuts that were set to take effect across the board in the absence of a bipartisan budget deal. December’s agreement averted another round, set for this month.
The sequester math was supposed to be so harsh that it would be unthinkable to let happen. But some tea party conservatives eventually embraced the automatic reductions as the only way to cut discretionary spending over Democratic objections. The sequester reductions cut deeply into the Pentagon and domestic programs, but also wiped out money for Obama’s high-speed rail initiative, the International Monetary Fund and new Homeland Security buildings. Today, adjusted for inflation, discretionary spending is back to pre-Obama levels.
Republicans may have overplayed their hand in October, however, as their effort to end Obama’s health care overhaul contributed to the government shutdown. The episode convinced establishment Republicans it was time to retake control of the party.
As Boehner prepares to gather his majority for an annual retreat this month to draft its new agenda, many expect that the hard-liners will have little choice but to shift gears away from the budget battles.
“I think we should play a little offense, but do it in a way that is sensible and would enjoy the support of the American people – and above all else, don’t make ourselves the issue,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., one of the few remaining moderate House Republicans. “When we get into these ill-advised shutdown situations, it brings attention on our party, I think, in a very negative and self-destructive way.”
Up-and-coming Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said the next fight would be about a vision. “That’s really going to be the internal struggle of the Republican Party. Are we just going to be the party that says the other side is worse than we are, or are we going to show why our side is actually better for the American people?”
Not all Republicans are ready to yield on the issue that has defined the new conservatives more than any other. Dozens of Republicans in the House, and more than half of the Republican minority in the Senate, opposed the budget deal.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a tea party favorite who led the shutdown strategy last fall, made another attempt this week to use the budget vote to stop Obamacare. He was defeated.
“I feel it’s disappointing that we haven’t been able to go further,” said Rep. Morgan Griffith, a second-term congressman from Virginia, who reluctantly acknowledged that the budget battles had been relegated to “a back burner until after the election.”
In some ways, the tea party was a victim of its own success – or of its inability to navigate the changing political and economic climate.
Deficits that topped $1 trillion a year during Obama’s first term as he struggled with falling tax revenue and recession-related spending have begun to fall sharply. War spending decreased as U.S. troops withdrew from conflicts overseas.
Moreover, as the economy has improved for some Americans, public pressure over the federal debt has receded amid rising concerns over income inequality. A Pew poll last month showed more interest in continued federal spending on the poor than on reducing deficits. Most Americans prefer a combination of taxes and spending cuts to reduce red ink.
But don’t count the tea party out just yet. Many conservative lawmakers are warning that the upcoming vote to raise the debt ceiling could provide the next battleground for their agenda.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 2012, has hinted at another fiscal fight as he vowed that the party would seek concessions from the White House before granting more borrowing authority. That battle could come as soon as next month, when the Treasury starts running short of money to pay bills, risking a federal default.