The bipartisan Senate deal to end the government’s fiscal impasse was roundly condemned Wednesday by tea party leaders around the country, who accused Republican lawmakers of capitulating to President Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress.
Matt Kibbe, president of the FreedomWorks conservative group, called it “a total surrender” and said the tea party’s gambit to undermine Obama’s health-care law could have worked if GOP leadership had stood firm.
“We don’t have regrets,” Kibbe added. “This was a very winnable fight, if the Republicans had been willing to fight.”
The deal struck Wednesday was a major setback for tea party groups such as FreedomWorks, Heritage Action for America and Tea Party Patriots, which backed a longshot attempt to use fiscal legislation to defund the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.
In the end, conservatives set in motion a two-week-long government shutdown and brought the United States to the edge of its borrowing capacity without achieving their original goal of hobbling Obamacare. But activists said they were neither deflated nor defeated.
“Part of me thinks that sometimes you throw a ‘Hail Mary’ and just hope for the best,” said Joanne Jones, vice chairman of the Charleston Tea Party in South Carolina. “At the state we’re at now, I’m not sure how much worse we could have made anything. It doesn’t particularly bother me that it was attempted and failed. It was an opportunity for the American people to see a very petty and petulant president.”
The fight revved up the four-year-old tea party movement, which is now training its sights on blocking immigration reform and challenging incumbent Republicans up for reelection in 2014.
“This is not all for naught,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots. “Fighting for freedom is always the right thing to do. We will take the energy and passion and put it into watching what the House does with amnesty legislation, and then into actions for next year that will involve elections.”
“We will keep fighting,” she added. “We’re not going to go away.”
Tea party organizers said the congressional showdown gave new steam to their efforts to dislodge establishment Republicans who did not champion the defunding effort, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.).
“It is invigorating, in the sense that who these people really are has become very plain,” said Roy Nicholson, chairman of the Mississippi Tea Party, noting that Cochran voted with the Senate Democratic leadership during a key moment in the budget fight. “They are not on the same side as the U.S. Constitution. They are not on the same side as the majority of their constituents.”
On Thursday, Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a conservative aligned with the tea party movement, is scheduled to hold a news conference announcing whether he will challenge Cochran.
“I predict that Thad Cochran is going to go out,” Nicholson said. “You would just not believe the number of people who are furious with this man.”
In Tennessee, activists said they have seen a surge of enthusiasm for an effort to eject Alexander from office.
“This has energized people,” said Ben Cunningham, president of the Nashville Tea Party. “This confirmed our perception that we are going to have to replace people in Congress who talk conservative — and talk and talk and talk — and do nothing.”
Cunningham said activists’ focus on upcoming elections underscores how the tea party has transformed itself since it first emerged in 2009.
“We have gone from a protest movement to a movement about the nuts and bolts of elections,” he said.
In Texas, political consultant and tea party organizer Katrina Pierson decided last month to challenge Rep. Pete Sessions (R), in part because she said he did not stand with activists on the effort to defund the health-care law.
“Every Republican that voted in 2010 voted to get rid of Obamacare,” she said. “We elected a House full of Republicans who did nothing. That’s really where the emotion is coming from. We need to be holding our Congress accountable.”
Meanwhile, national groups such as FreedomWorks said they plan to keep up the pressure.
“This fight goes on and on, as long as Obamacare continues to be implemented,” Kibbe said.