When the top US Republican in Congress slams far-right groups as “ridiculous,” it is clear the Tea Party is in trouble and that its influence in the halls of power has hit a snag.
In the past week week, the US House of Representatives achieved a first since 1986 by resoundingly approving a two-year bipartisan budget deal in a divided government.
Three quarters of Republicans in the GOP-controlled chamber voted in favor of the measure, which repeals billions of dollars in painful automatic cuts and crucially avoids the prospect of a US government shutdown next year.
However, a myriad of conservative groups — in line with Tea Party ideals and feared by lawmakers because of their financial firepower — condemned the compromise before it was even official since it will slightly increase public spending next year and in 2015.
That did it for US House Speaker John Boehner, who subsequently lashed out at the groups.
“This is ridiculous,” the top Republican in Congress said on Wednesday.
And he did not stop there.
“Frankly, I just think that they’ve lost all credibility,” he added on Thursday. “I’m as conservative as anybody around this place. And all the things that we’ve done over the three years that I’ve been speaker have not violated any conservative principle, not once.”
Analysts interpreted the attack as revenge on behalf of the “establishment” of the Republican Party that, since 2010, has become destabilized by Tea Party “insurgents” who have won dozens of seats in US Congress.
It was sparked by the paralyzing government shutdown in October that backfired for Republicans, they said.
Over the course of 16 painful days, federal agencies sent most of their staff home because congressional Republicans refused to pass a budget due to the stubbornness of a group of Tea party lawmakers hostile to compromise.
With next year’s primaries fast approaching, the failure of this strategy led to an internal counteroffensive against the most conservative elements of the US right wing.
So does a win by the moderates signal the beginning of something more permanent?
“I think it’s a one-time event,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington.
“This is not the sort of death blow to radicals or the Tea Party wing of the Republican party,” he said.
“We were fresh enough off the debacle they had with the shutdown that some members who might otherwise have been worried about the Tea Party were more worried about what would happen if there were no deal and they got blamed again” if that happened again, he said.
According to Ornstein, the real popularity test for the Tea Party will come in the spring, when Congress is due to negotiate a further debt ceiling increase — a matter even more contentious than the budget.
“This was one battle, it hasn’t resolved much of anything, you’re going to continue to see some guerrilla warfare out there,” he said.
Democrats, who are in the minority in the House, but hold the upper hand in the US Senate, also appeared cautious about reading too much into the bipartisanship of the budget deal.
“I don’t think it’s a one-off, and I don’t think it’s a great turning point” in the workings of the chamber, top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi said. “But I think that we have many more areas that we can work together in a bipartisan way.”