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Patriot games

Debt ceiling debate widens rift between Speaker Boehner and Tea Party conservatives

Issue: "Face-off," Aug. 13, 2011

House Speaker John Boehner had just broken off debt ceiling talks with President Barack Obama on July 22 when Tea Party Nation Founder Judson Phillips blogged to his following, "Boehner's stand up moment."

"We need to get out and support Boehner," he wrote.

Just five days later, after Boehner had introduced a bill to raise the debt ceiling that included spending cuts, no tax increases, and a guaranteed vote on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, Phillips blogged again: "John Boehner is the sugar daddy of the welfare state," he wrote. "It does not matter how much Boehner claims to be a conservative, he is not."

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With friends like that who needs enemies? As the debt ceiling debate took daily twists and turns ahead of an Aug. 2 deadline on government default, one phenomenon regularly emerged: The expectations of the Tea Party faithful kept bumping up against the reality of a White House and Senate controlled by liberal Democrats.

Boehner's plan achieved some victories-chiefly tying, for the first time, future increases in the debt limit directly to spending cuts. Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republicans' most credible voice on fiscal discipline, supported it. But the Tea Party remained unimpressed and wanted more.

At a sparsely attended July 27 Tea Party rally on Capitol Hill, speaker after speaker implored Boehner to "hold the line," meaning no compromise. Captain America, hefting a jumbo-sized U.S. flag, and George Washington also worked the crowd. Earlier in the day, the Tea Party Patriots released a poll saying that 74.1 percent of group members favored or were leaning toward a new House speaker.

Usually lockstep conservative groups were divided on Boehner's plan: Americans for Tax Reform and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supported it while the Club for Growth and Heritage Action urged conservatives to oppose it. "I can't do this job unless you're behind me," Boehner said to his rank and file members at the height of the uprising.

The sticking point for many of the largely Tea Party-backed 87 new House Republicans: A guarantee that the balanced budget amendment proposal (the "crown jewel," according to one House freshman) not only gets a vote but also passes Congress and heads to the states for final approval.

By July 27, some veteran Republicans had had enough. Sen. John McCain, not a likely candidate for any Tea Party rally but to some the dean of GOP lawmakers, called the demand "worse than foolish" on the Senate floor: "It's unfair. It's bizarre."

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell also reached out to his beleaguered House counterpart by explaining the political realities. "We cannot get a perfect solution, from my point of view, controlling only the House of Representatives," said McConnell, who remained fearful that Republicans would shoulder the bulk of the blame if calamity followed any default. "We know we can't get a result without something that can pass a Republican House, a Democratic Senate and be signed by a Democratic president."

Facing the political realities, many House freshmen finally supported the Boehner plan. But it's remarkable how much the Tea Party has succeeded in changing the debate in Washington: Never before has a debt ceiling increase caused such a brouhaha. Veteran lawmakers from both parties now admit that Washington suffers from an acute spending addiction.

But changing the debate is not the same as having the power to pass a bill. Significant structural changes in the way Washington can spend taxpayer dollars will require more than the combined appearance of Captain America and George Washington. It'll take more conservative victories in November 2012.

Christina Latchford, a 56-year-old from Tampa, Fla., who canceled her flight home from vacation after hearing about the July 27 rally, senses this. "We don't have a full backbone yet," she said of conservative lawmakers. She added that the cancellation fees she incurred were worth every penny because "we all have to make sacrifices. This country is a gift we can't lose."

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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