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Budget deal trumps tea party agenda

By Lisa Mascaro 
and Michael A. Memoli
Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON: Hard-fought passage of a $1 trillion bipartisan spending bill brings to an end — for now — the era of tea-party-driven budget battles in Congress as Republican leaders part ways with their party’s rebellious hard-liners and look toward new political battles.

Since grass-roots conservatives hoisted Republicans to power in the House with the 2010 midterm election, party leaders can boast that they’ve helped slash government spending to George W. Bush-era levels, even after Democrats increased budgets to help the nation rebound from the recession. Billions of dollars in specialty earmark spending — once commonly used by lawmakers to fund pet projects — are relics of the past.

But the tea party ascent came at a steep price for Republicans, including an unprecedented fracture in party unity and a bruised GOP brand, caused by hardball political tactics that were blamed for October’s widely unpopular 16-day government shutdown.

The failure of these new-style small-government conservatives to block the latest budget package may be a sign of the movement’s waning influence. The legislation easily cleared Congress this week, and President Barack Obama signed it into law Friday afternoon.

The measure funds the government through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. But because the broader budget accord reached last year sets spending levels through 2015, hard-liners have lost the chance to continue the crisis-driven budgeting cycle that has consumed Washington for three years.

But the next act for House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-West Chester, remains ill defined. Just what, exactly, do the Republicans want to do now?

Conservatives argue that the budget-crunching is far from finished. They remain disappointed that the package did not cut more deeply into federal spending and are pushing to defund Obamacare and revamp safety net programs, including Medicare.

But others in the GOP have had enough. Defense hawks revolted against the deeper military reductions supported by tea party lawmakers. Republican elders grew weary of partisan brinkmanship, which helped drive the party’s public approval ratings to record lows.

As both parties gear up for a midterm election campaign season that will determine the control of Congress, the Republican agenda is at a crossroads.

Boehner, who has struggled to control his House majority, is already trying to nudge members toward other topics, particularly those on which the party can appeal to middle-class voters. At the top of his agenda, he said this week, is repealing Obamacare, cutting taxes and expanding school voucher programs.

As Boehner prepares to gather his majority for an annual retreat this month to draft its new agenda, many expect that the hard-liners will have little choice but to shift gears away from the budget battles.

But don’t count the tea party out just yet. Many conservative lawmakers are warning that the upcoming vote to raise the debt ceiling could provide the next battleground for their agenda.