The Washington Post

Did the debt-ceiling fight teach the tea party a lesson?

Molly Ball ends her column on how tea party members of Congress, despite their best intentions, have finally learned how government works with this:

This is how Washington works: Certain things have to get done, and you try to get the best deal you can, and then move on to the next thing. This is basically what [House Speaker John] Boehner has been trying to tell his caucus for the last three years, but they had to figure it out for themselves. Now that they’ve achieved acceptance, will Boehner's job get easier? Or will a new wave of mad-as-hell representatives rise up in protest?

Those two questions are, at heart, some of the chief reasons Republican Party heads are trying so hard to prevent a new class of tea partyers  from joining the House in 2015. By the end of their first term, the tea partyers have figured out that politics isn't about winning. It's about mutual dissatisfaction. When a bill gets passed, Democrats are supposed to get some of the provisions they want, and so are Republicans. When the White House lays out its policy guidelines for the year, Congress will often concede some points, while leaving others to rot. No side gets every item on its wish list in the final law, but each can be smug about the fact that the other didn't achieve total victory either. That's politics!


House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio vehemently rebukes conservative groups who oppose the pending bipartisan budget compromise struck by House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Boehner said the GOP leadership has had enough tea party-driven intransigence in Congress and he doesn’t care what they think. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The tea party Republicans who have been in the House since 2010 definitely haven't acquired the pragmatism of a career politician, but they're willing to allow an important piece of legislation to pass every now and again. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann is a perfect example. In October 2013, she refused to vote for a debt-ceiling increase because she had more important symbolic battles on her mind: "I could not vote for this bill as it does nothing to give relief to the countless Americans hurting under Obamacare, nor does it address our out-of-control spending and $17 trillion national debt." This time around, she's changed her mind. “There is a pragmatism here," Bachmann told The Washington Post last week. "You’ve got to know when to hold them and when to fold them. My assessment is that most of us don’t think it’s the time to fight.”

And the Republican conference lived happily ever after? Hardly, thanks to the entire crop of tea party candidates currently trying to join their older and newly enlightened conservative cohort in the House and Senate. By the time the Republican Party helps its fractious fringe pass Governing 101, there's already a whole new class that needs training on how to pass laws and prevent the party from plummeting even further in the public's opinion. Which is why many outside groups and strategists are devoting so much time to cutting the problem off at the source and preventing these tea party candidates from beating the already docile (or at least more docile) members of their brood.

As 89 percent of Republican insiders said in a National Journal survey from December 2013, these tea party challengers aren't helping the party. It's unclear how well this offensive against another congressional session of stasis will work, since Republicans writ large are still fond of the tea party, and the largest outside group supporting Republican incumbents during primary season, the Conservative Victory Project, raised very little money last year.

It's too early to say how the midterms will pan out, but to answer Ball's question, history seems to suggest that mad-as-hell representatives aren't ready for eulogizing yet, and that budget negotiations or any other negotiations in Congress aren't about to get easier any time soon.

Must-reads:

"House passes ‘clean’ debt-ceiling bill, ending two-week showdown" -- Robert Costa, Paul Kane and Ed O'Keefe, The Washington Post

"How John Boehner decided to give up on the debt limit fight" -- Robert Costa, The Washington Post

"Holder Urges States to Repeal Bans on Felons’ Voting" -- Matt Apuzzo, The New York Times

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.

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