The tea party movement that shook up the Republican Party eight years ago flickered to life this week when Congress muscled through a major budget deal that prompted howls of consternation from conservatives who objected to its spending and deficit increases.
But the protests were extinguished quickly by the realities of a Republican government led by President Trump. Although a number of right-leaning groups that ascended in the 2010 midterms, including the powerful political network of the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, were among the loudest opponents, there appeared to be little appetite among those groups to exact punishment on Trump or the GOP-controlled Congress.
When the plan was released Wednesday, it came under immediate attack from five Koch-backed groups. They penned a letter to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) decrying the “irresponsible spending levels” and debt-limit suspension in the agreement.
On Capitol Hill, a vocal coterie of hard-right lawmakers, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who was elected to the Senate in 2010 as a tea party hero, also protested the bill. Paul took advantage of Senate rules to delay a vote on the budget bill until early Friday morning, after the midnight deadline to avoid a partial government shutdown.
The brief and at times halfhearted outcry underscored the new political dynamic in Washington: a Republican president and congressional leaders unbeholden to an ideology on spending and deficits — and a party unwilling or unable to wage a large-scale political war against them.
“The president will have more sway with many of our members than these outside groups will,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (Pa.), a centrist Republican who voted for the budget. “And they are going to learn that lesson, I suspect, on this vote.”
There’s also the reality that these groups are quite happy with the tax cuts that Congress passed in December — and aren’t interested in risking the GOP majority by targeting lawmakers who helped make that happen.
The budget deal, which would add more than half a trillion dollars in federal spending and pile on the federal deficit, passed in the early hours of Friday with the support of a majority of Republicans in both the Senate and House.
On Friday morning, Trump touted his signing of the bill. “Our Military will now be stronger than ever before,” he wrote on Twitter. “We love and need our Military and gave them everything — and more. First time this has happened in a long time. Also means JOBS, JOBS, JOBS!”
There are no signs of further repercussions from the Koch network, which had previously announced plans to spend close to $400 million in this election cycle on politics and policy — a whopping figure.
“We try to refrain from red lines and threats and any of that. But it’s certainly disappointing,” Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity president, said of the budget. His group chose not to “key vote” the budget, meaning it will not factor into their scoring system for members of Congress.
Retail magnate Art Pope, a conservative power broker in North Carolina and a donor to the Koch network, said he is disappointed to see large spending increases in the budget plan, but he understands the political realities of getting a two-year deal with Democrats’ support.
“The Republicans who voted in order to keep the government open and the necessary increases in national defense did what was necessary. No, they shouldn’t be punished or have it held against them,” Pope said.
The Club for Growth, a separate organization, released a carefully worded statement this week taking aim at McConnell rather than Trump. While the group is including the budget vote on its scorecard, its vice president for government affairs, Andy Roth, did not commit in an interview to any specific, punitive measures.
“The Club for Growth PAC is always eager to help defeat liberal Republicans, and this vote is going to shed more light on who those Republicans are,” he said.
One conservative group leader said administration officials were in touch to warn that the budget bill was not the hill to die on, politically speaking.
The group leader, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said the GOP-controlled government had racked up some good will with the passage of the sweeping tax overhaul bill and by rolling back Obama-era regulations. Without those accomplishments, the blowback to the budget would have been more severe, this person said.
Members of the hard-right Freedom Caucus in the House railed against the agreement. After Ryan briefed members on the arrangement Wednesday, Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) called it a “Christmas tree on steroids.”
Brat was one of 67 House Republicans who voted against it. On the other side, 167 of his Republican colleagues voted yes.
They had cover from Trump, which has proved to be a valuable motivator, given his popularity among conservative base voters. It “gives Secretary Mattis what he needs to keep America Great. Republicans and Democrats must support our troops and support this Bill!” the president tweeted.
What Republicans are increasingly finding is that controlling Congress and the White House has not enabled them to jam through an agenda that will satisfy all elements of the party.
“It’s a budget deal. You know, there are going to be things in it you like and you don’t like. It’s called a compromise,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said. “That’s kind of how government works.”
Dan Holler, vice president of communications and government relations at the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action for America, said his organization plans to hold members accountable for voting on the budget bill through the group’s voter scorecard.
According to Holler, the group does not have specific plans to run issue advertisements on the bill. He said group officials spoke with lawmakers and their staffs Thursday, as details of the budget package began to emerge and discussed the implications of the bill.
From a policy perspective, the alarms could hardly ring louder. Romina Boccia, a budget expert at the Heritage Foundation, an affiliated nonprofit research arm, said it was troubling that Congress would contemplate the provisions in the measure.
“This is fiscally reckless. This is mortgaging the future, on steroids,” Boccia said. “At this point in the budget process, no deal is better than a bad deal.”
Rand Paul, embracing the tea party movement’s planks on spending and the debt, delayed a vote when GOP leaders refused to let him offer an amendment. He wrote Friday on Twitter that “you could feel the frustration and embarrassment growing in Congress as we exposed the hypocrisy of Republicans who are joining in an unholy alliance and spending free-for-all with Democrats.”
Trump appeared to nod to that wing of the party in a subsequent tweet Friday, but it didn’t stop him from signing the bill — and crowing about it.
“Without more Republicans in Congress, we were forced to increase spending on things we do not like or want in order to finally, after many years of depletion, take care of our Military. Sadly, we needed some Dem votes for passage. Must elect more Republicans in 2018 Election!”