The tea party has taken a series of hits since it goaded Republican leaders into a costly and self-defeating government shutdown last fall. But the conservative movement remains formidable when it comes to pushing Republican leaders to just say no, at all costs, to new economic and domestic initiatives that aren’t essential to avert immediate crisis.
The emerging dynamic is one where the tea party can no longer hold the basic functions of government hostage to conservative policy reforms, but has effective veto power over major new proposals that require bipartisan deal-making. It’s an important shift from the last three years since the nascent movement helped the GOP win more than 60 congressional seats and re-take the House in the 2010 elections, spurring a party-wide lurch to the right.
How The Tea Party Still Wields Power Over Republicans
A swath of new proposals by President Barack Obama and Democrats has run into a brick wall of GOP opposition, thanks to tea party opposition.
Even on initiatives that are broadly popular, as in the case of emergency unemployment compensation and raising the minimum wage, conservatives have successfully blocked any movement forward. Senate Republicans have repeatedly filibustered the restoration of jobless benefits, and both Senate and House GOP leaders oppose raising the minimum wage.
Heritage Action lambasted the push to renew unemployment benefits as “throwing taxpayer money at an ineffective and wasteful program.”
An initiative that Republican strategists say is imperative to stave off electoral extinction — immigration reform — isn’t going anywhere. Recently, Speaker John Boehner took a significant step toward action by releasing a pro-reform blueprint. But within one week, after a fierce backlash from tea party organizations, who foreshadowed a GOP civil war if leaders didn’t reverse course, he hit the brakes and signaled that the House wouldn’t take up reform. Some Republicans were dismayed.
“If we don’t pass immigration reform this year, we will not win the White House back in 2016, 2020 or 2024,” warned John Feehery, a former top House Republican aide who is now a lobbyist.
On efforts supported constituencies that Republican operatives say the party must perform better with, conservatives not only block them, they sometimes dismiss the very notion that they’re necessary. Bills like the Paycheck Fairness Act, which beefs up legal protections for women who face pay discrimination in the workplace, are stymied by Republican opposition. A Fox News host argued that many women who were paid less than men earned “exactly what they’re worth.” GOP leaders have also refused to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which appeals to supporters of gay rights, a burgeoning constituency across the country. ENDA passed the Senate recently and Boehner wasted no time before signaling that it was dead in the House.
Even initiatives that have enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support in the past, like the Voting Rights Act, are now toxic on the right. Conservatives oppose fixing the part of the historic law that was struck down by the Supreme Court, designed to preemptively snuff out voter discrimination in the state and local governments where it’s likeliest to occur. Lawmakers recently introduced bipartisan legislation to rewrite and reform that provision, but Republican leaders have refused to sign on, amid opposition from conservatives who say the idea violates states rights and should be left alone.
The tea party movement has — so far, at least — blocked every one of these initiatives, with direct appeals to conservative voters to pressure Republicans not to compromise. Far-right voters may be a shrinking fraction of the national electorate, but they’re exceptionally active in the Obama era. Their tactics, such as threatening primary challengers and flooding lawmakers’ offices with phone calls, remain effective.
The 2014 congressional elections provide a glimpse of how the movement
keeps Republicans in line. In the House, the tea party threatened harm to the GOP’s standing by way of depressed voter turnout if leaders bring up immigration reform. In the Senate, prominent conservatives are trying to oust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell by supporting his right-wing challenger, Matt Bevin. McConnell has, in response, has undermined immigration reform and led the fight against renewing unemployment benefits.
But The Tea Party Has Faced Some Setbacks
For three years, the tea party was successful at compelling Republican leaders to threaten self-inflicted crises, like government shutdowns and defaulting on the debt, in order to secure conservative policy reforms. Empowered by victory in 2011, when a despondent Democratic Party acquiesced to well over $2 trillion in spending cuts, including the sequester, the tea party forced a series of standoffs that culminated in the 16-day partial government shutdown last October.
No more. Amid a united “enough is enough” response from Democrats, GOP leaders have successfully beat back the tea party’s attempts to withhold support for must-pass legislation as a pawn to force drastic downsizing of the federal government. Since the deal to re-open the government last fall — a major defeat for the tea party, which walked away with nothing — GOP leaders have bucked their conservative wing and cut deals on a two-year budget, a $1.012 trillion spending bill and a farm bill.
“The tea party has lost some momentum,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. “The government shutdown was a reminder that confrontation can backfire and that Americans actually like a certain level of government service.”
Tea party groups like Heritage Action and Club For Growth whipped the budget and farm bills, to no avail. For years, a “key vote no” from these groups was typically a death knell to Republican support for any legislation. That has changed for items needed to avoid major disruptions: some 70 percent of House Republicans voted for the budget and farm legislation. In the upcoming debt limit debate, Boehner is struggling to unite his conference around any proposal, but the tea party is largely silent, resigned to the fact that Republicans won’t follow through in demanding significant concessions.
“We should bring up a clean debt ceiling, let the Democrats pass it, and just move on,” conservative Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) told the Washington Post.
How did Republican leaders turn the tide? By fighting back, and persuading their members that repeated hostage standoffs were politically suicidal. In December, Boehner angrily criticized tea party groups as having “lost all credibility” after they came out against the Ryan-Murray budget deal before it was finalized. “They’re using our members and they’re using the American people for their own goals,” snapped the normally mild-mannered Speaker. “This is ridiculous.”
But Boehner only took back some of his power — just enough to halt the spiral of self-defeating confrontations. The tea party wields the rest.