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Maybe the Tea Party really is finished
The House easily passed the giant omnibus spending package, despite strong opposition from outside conservative groups
 
Boenher is back in charge. 
Boenher is back in charge.  (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Tea Party activists and the conservative groups that have enforced their agenda are vehemently opposed to the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill that will fund the government through September. On Wednesday evening, the House passed the bill anyway, 359 to 67, with plenty of votes to spare.

Sixty-four of those no votes were from conservative Republicans. But it seems pretty clear from the vote tally that Tea Party–style "ideological purity has lost its power," says Jonathan Weisman in The New York Times. "The budget process that is culminating in the passage of the spending bill has ushered in a remarkable marginalization of the Republican far right."

The process Weisman is referring to started after the Republicans shut down the government in October, in a power play designed and promoted by the same groups that opposed the omnibus spending bill — Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, and various Tea Party–branded outfits.

After 16 politically disastrous days, the House voted to reopen the government, 285 to 144 — will all 144 nays from the GOP side. About two months later, when it came time to vote on the first budget out of Congress since 2009 — a bipartisan document from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), similarly opposed by the Tea Party groups — only 62 House Republicans voted no.

Since the October shutdown, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) "has reasserted control over his fractious Republican conference, leaving his far-right flank angry and isolated," says Weisman. "The speaker's public and private denunciations of the outside conservative groups have created conditions in which members must choose sides, and they have."

In December, when the Beltway media declared that the Tea Party's hold on the GOP was broken, I was skeptical. But the trend is hard to ignore. The Club for Growth and Heritage Action both said they would tally the omnibus spending bill vote on their conservative score cards, a key tool of persuasion over the past three years. As in December, the threat didn't have much effect.

The Tea Party faction still has its trump card — mounting primary challenges against Republicans not deemed conservative enough. But even that threat seems to be losing its sting. Here's how Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), facing a strong, well-financed Tea Party challenge, responded after voting yes on the omnibus: "If I started voting how they want me to, versus what I think is right, then they've already won."

House Republican leaders are also starting to play hardball. On Wednesday, National Journal reported that the House GOP's campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), has quietly blacklisted conservative political firm Jamestown Associates, urging House members to look elsewhere for campaign support. Jamestown's sin? Working with the Senate Conservatives Fund to support Tea Party candidates against sitting Republican lawmakers.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, Republican National Committee, and Chamber of Commerce had already cut off Jamestown. The message is pretty clear: Republicans need to fight Democrats, not other Republicans; you're with us or against us; and if you're against us, there will be consequences.

The biggest sign that the Tea Party-era might be coming to an end, though, is the omnibus bill itself. The 1,582-page legislation is "precisely the sort of massive legislation that Republicans criticized when they successfully sought power three years ago in the House," says The Associated Press' David Espo. It is, frankly, filled with pork — and it provides money for ObamaCare, universal pre-K education, and the National Endowment for the Arts. It is also has a significantly higher price tag than the default budget under sequestration, which was $967 billion.

If this really is the death knell of the Tea Party, though, Tea Partiers can take plenty of solace in the longer-term victories represented in the budget. Not only did they get their own list of goodies in, but "at its core, the legislation cements the most fundamental accomplishment to date by conservatives in three tumultuous years of divided government," says the AP's Espo.

Combined spending for thousands of routine government programs is in a general decline, and it will take a clean sweep by Democrats in some future election before the restraints are likely to be lifted.... The new total is $1.012 trillion, more than the most conservative Republicans favor — but far lower than four years ago and lower still than it would have been had spending simply risen in step with inflation. [AP]

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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