WASHINGTON — The tea party lost. Big.
It and its well-funded allies tried every tactic — daring President Barack Obama to tinker with the Affordable Care Act, tying up the Senate and insisting on dramatically reduced government spending.
In the end, it got nothing. Obamacare survives without a scratch. Longer-term budget issues will be hashed out later. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who led a marathon talkathon last month, not only failed to create any momentum for his cause, but also wound up alienating party colleagues. At the same time, public support for the tea party dropped.
"The tea party is less popular than ever, with even many Republicans now viewing the movement negatively," said a Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday. It found that nearly half of the public had an unfavorable opinion of the movement, while 30 percent had a favorable opinion.
Tea party loyalists tried Wednesday to ease the pain, insisting they had lost a round but that the bigger fight goes on.
"I think you're going to see something happening over the next year and a half," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. People increasingly realize, he said, that "there's a group of (us) in Washington, D.C., who are not listening to special interests and are listening to the people."
Maybe so, but they're not getting much done today.
Wednesday's deal ended, at least for now, the tea party's relentless crusade to repeal, defund or dilute the health care law, a law it sees as emblematic of big, intrusive government.
This fall, the tea partiers had big plans. Defund or delay Obamacare, they said, or we won't agree to keep the government running after Oct. 1. Nor will we go along with a higher debt limit if the nation exhausts its borrowing authority Oct. 17.
The goal seemed quixotic, but what the heck. The tea party had tilted at some of America's sturdiest windmills before and done fine. The disparate movement sprang up almost organically in 2009, and the next year it helped elect 87 Republican freshmen to the House of Representatives. It also helped knock off some mainstream Republican Senate candidates in 2010 and 2012, albeit with conservatives who sometimes couldn't win general elections.
By January 2011, Republicans controlled the House, and, more important, dozens of Republicans owed their jobs to the tea party.
By last year, though, it became clear that the movement faced trouble. It was rigid in its no-compromise stance, and its successes the past few months tended to be as naysayers, as House Republican leaders had to back off seeking votes on a fiscal cliff tax plan, transportation and housing funding and farm programs.
The tea party mattered, so the stage seemed set for a defining duel over Obamacare. In the Senate, most Republicans were reluctant to tie health care to government funding, but the tea party was relentless.
The tea party persuaded wary House Republican leaders to link the two. But the Senate refused to go along.
Wednesday, with Republicans in the Senate signing a deal with Democrats, about all the tea party could do was complain loudly and vow to fight.