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After Debt Deal, The Tea Party Has Staying Power

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT, center) and other House Republicans react to passage of the Cut, Cap and Balance bill on July 19. Chaffetz ultimately voted against the final debt-ceiling bill.
J. Scott Applewhite
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT, center) and other House Republicans react to passage of the Cut, Cap and Balance bill on July 19. Chaffetz ultimately voted against the final debt-ceiling bill.

Members of Congress have begun fleeing the nation's steamy capital for their summer break, leaving behind a funk of noxious politics and a debt-ceiling deal that averts a government default but inspires almost universal hatred.

They're also dragging along dueling narratives about what the acrimonious past few weeks have meant for the prospects of the Tea Party movement.

The Tea Party faction of the Republican Party either emerged from the debt-ceiling debate as triumphant dealmakers who ensured that the final plan focused entirely on spending cuts, or marginalized "extortionists" willing to risk the nation's financial integrity.

"You want me to solve this cognitive dissonance?" joked Mike Franc of the conservative Heritage Foundation, shortly before the Senate voted final approval of the debt-ceiling package Tuesday.

"Political scientists are going to have a lot of fun with this," says Franc, who oversees the organization's outreach to Congress and the White House.

The Tea Party-fueled House Republican freshmen drove the debate to the brink. But most ended up voting for an 11th-hour deal to raise the nation's borrowing limit — anathema to their harder-line colleagues like Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan. Jordan, who opposed raising the debt ceiling, felt the wrath of some fellow Republicans for lobbying against his own party leaders' debt deals.

He was joined in voting "no" on the final plan by 95 Democrats and 65 other Republicans, most from districts where party registration suggests their re-election prospects are safe.

Tea Party Durability

Those tempted to suggest that Tea Party influence in the Republican Party will prove fleeting may want to first check economic indicators.

As long as the economy remains persistently sour, and Washington continues to grapple with spending and deficits, the movement in all its iterations will be a force, says Franc of the Heritage Foundation.

"That's the underlying reason why they came into existence," he said. "If you resolve that, in a fiscal sense, it's conceivable they will go back to what they were doing before they got all worked up."

But, he added: "We're nowhere near that."

The debt deal requires that Congress name a bipartisan committee of 12 lawmakers to come up with legislation by Thanksgiving that would reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion over a decade.

Lawmakers are already wary of the powerful role the committee will play. And gaming out who House and Senate leaders may name to that Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is already well under way. It's not yet clear whether party leaders will tap someone with Tea Party cred, like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the influential House Budget Committee chairman and author of a deep-cutting GOP budget passed by the House.

If that sure-to-be contentious committee ultimately fails, the new debt-ceiling deal requires an automatic, across-the-board cut of $1.2 trillion to domestic and defense programs. (Medicaid and Social Security would be exempted.)

Congress will also be required to vote on a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And the Bush-era tax cuts? They're set to expire at the end of 2012.

"What we've settled into is a dialogue about the types and levels of spending controls that will take us at least through next spring," says Jim Dyke, a Republican consultant based in South Carolina. Gone is the "balanced approach" advocated by President Obama and the Democrats.

"And Republicans, including the Tea Party and independents, have completely changed the debate in Washington," he says. "This is not a bump in the road, it is a movement that you'll see sustained."

On this, he and Michael Linden, tax and budget policy director at the progressive Center for American Progress, agree.

"The Tea Party is the controlling faction of the Republican Party," and will be until the economy improves, Linden says.

Wide But Not Deep

Critics of the more intransigent House Tea Party adherents have taken to calling them "Bolsheviks" and "extremists."

(Vice President Joe Biden, who helped broker the final deal, denied a report alleging that he referred to Republicans as "acting like terrorists." White House spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday also refuted the report, first published in Politico.)

But though the reach of Tea Party sentiment is expansive nationally, it does not have the fervency of its small-government kin in the House.

"People who subscribe to the Tea Party philosophy broadly agree on how big government should be, but tactically, it's like a rainbow," says Franc of the Heritage Foundation. "There is a sense that there are a lot of ways to skin a cat, and that was reflected in how these members voted at the end of the day."

Polling by Gallup suggests that Franc is correct.

In a recent poll, Gallup asked Republicans to characterize the level of their support for the Tea Party movement.

Sixty-one percent of Republicans surveyed said they supported the movement in general, says Gallup's Newport, but only 10 percent said they were very strong supporters.

"That's a smaller number than one might imagine," Newport says. "There is a kind of broad support of the Tea Party among Republicans, but it's not of the ardent, take-no-prisoners type."

A recent national poll by CBS News found that 66 percent of those surveyed who identified themselves as Tea Party supporters said they wanted to see congressional Republicans compromise to resolve the debt-ceiling crisis. Fifty-three percent said that the compromise should include a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.

"The Tea Party is about getting our fiscal house in order, and I think they've got a fairly consistent conservative Republican point of view," says Dyke, the GOP consultant.

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.