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Death of the Tea Party?

Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots says House Republicans who voted this week for the $1.1 trillion spending bill betrayed their electoral promises.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

A majority of House Republicans shrugged off ultraconservative opposition Wednesday to vote for a $1.1 trillion spending bill for the current fiscal year. The measure won the support of 166 House Republicans, with only 64 voting against.

The 1,582 page bill reached the House only two nights before the vote, making it the poster child for the kind of legislation the tea party has opposed since its formation, a huge bill delivered to Congress in the dark and voted on before legislators could read it. It predictably was opposed by such conservative groups as the Club for Growth and Heritage Action. Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots said the spending bill proves the need for “members in the House and Senate who are willing to keep their campaign promises, stand up of the people and protect Americans from Washington’s tax, borrow, spend and spend and spend mentality.”

Despite all that, more than 70 percent of House Republicans voted for the spending bill, a degree of independence from the strictures of the far right that would have been unthinkable a few months ago. The vote marked the culmination of what may be the marginalization of the extreme right in Republican politics, a process that began with the vote to reopen the federal government after the politically disastrous 16-day shutdown. That vote won the support of 87 House Republicans.

The reopening of the government led to the broad budget deal reached in December. Though ultraconservatives denounced the agreement, 169 Republicans supported it. The budget pact paved the way for the this week’s spending bill, backed by a similar number of Republicans. “Our people learned a lot of tough lessons in the last year, and I think you’re seeing the tough lessons applied,” said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, in defense of his vote for the spending bill.

Speaker John Boehner appeared to learn those lessons when he lashed out against conservative groups last December. He criticized organizations such as the Club for Growth, Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, and Americans for Prosperity for attacking the budget deal reached by Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington. “You mean the groups that came out and opposed it before they ever saw it?” Boehner fumed.

Does all this mean that these conservative action groups have lost power and influence? Does it presage the end of tea party extremism and the reassertion of moderation in the Republican Party?

Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, says his group is still influential, but concedes recent House votes show that “we’ve got work to do.” He added, “We’d love to put ourselves out of business, but until you get a majority of economic conservatives, you’ve got to keep fighting.”

Don’t expect tea party groups to roll over, either. Indeed, an indication of the direction of the Republican Party likely will come in the 2014 elections, especially in the primaries, where right-wing groups are challenging incumbents accused of alleged moderation. Such stalwart conservative Republicans as Senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, John Cornyn of Texas, and Thad Cochran of Mississippi, face tea party-backed primary opponents.

Establishment Republicans are fighting back for the first time in several election cycles. Of particular note is the role of the Chamber of Commerce, which appears to be abandoning tea party candidates in favor of pro-business Republicans who encourage trade, favor immigration reform, and support infrastructure construction.

The Chamber has not always been anti-tea party. “When the Tea Party first came out with who they were and what they believe, they talked about things that the Chamber very much supports,” said Thomas Donohue, the organization’s president, who pointed to shared values such as lower taxes and spending cuts. “Then,” he continued, “we had a lot of people who came along who had different views and they tried to hitch their wagon to the Tea Party engine, and those are the people that wanted to not pay the federal debt and to shut down government and to take more radical approaches to try and get where we all really want to get.”

Establishment Republicans know that such tea party-backed candidates as Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Todd Akin in Missouri, and Sharron Angle in Nevada cost the GOP possible control of the Senate.

The mainstream GOP is determined to prevent a repeat of such disastrous candidates. Wether they can control the nomination process, where the tea party has strong grassroots supports, is the key question of 2014.