WASHINGTON — House Republicans rode the tea party tiger to power last fall. Now it's turning on them, threatening GOP unity and causing headaches for party leaders as they try to negotiate with Democrats in a divided government.
With the 2012 campaigns cranking up, some Republicans are re-evaluating the fiery movement that fueled their sweeping victories in 2010.
House Speaker John Boehner's misreading of tea partiers' doggedness this week forced his chagrined team to postpone votes twice on his debt-ceiling bill. Finally, on Friday, Boehner had to amend the bill in ways Democrats openly derided. The events proved "that while the tea party Republicans are a noisy and effective protest movement, they are unfit for governing," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
Said Rep. Steven LaTourette, an Ohio Republican, "We've lost some leverage."
The political fractures are reaching into the tea party movement itself. Some tea party-backed lawmakers embraced Boehner's original bill, drawing fire from the movement's most unyielding wings.
A group called the United West labeled four House Republicans "tea party defectors." One of them is first-term Rep. Allen West of Plantation, a highly visible favorite of many tea party factions.
"One minute they're saying I'm their tea party hero, and what, three or four days later, I'm a tea party defector? That kind of tea party schizophrenia, I'm not going to get involved in it," West said.
Republican Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, who says he will not support a debt limit hike under any circumstances, defended the tea party movement.
"The tea party has been maligned unfairly," he said in an interview. "It's about limiting government according to what the Constitution says it should be."
But some establishment Republicans are wondering whether they got more than they bargained for. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, strongly opposed last year's health care legislation, making common cause with the tea party. But this month, the chamber swung solidly behind Boehner's original debt-ceiling bill. It suffered embarrassment with all of the other groups and individuals forced to swallow the tea party demands.
Republican campaign strategists are weighing the tea party's valuable energy against the possibility that it might push the party away from mainstream politics, which appeal to crucial independent voters. A Pew Research poll found that 68 percent of American voters want lawmakers to compromise on the debt ceiling and default issue, even if it means striking a deal they disagree with.
Some GOP staffers privately roll their eyes at accounts of House members insisting that Senate Democrats will suddenly come to their senses and embrace the balanced budget agreement.
"I sure hope they don't try to take out the balanced budget amendment in the Senate," said Rep. Phil Gingery, R-Ga.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., barely conceals his disdain for such thinking. The key question, Reid said in a speech Friday, is "will today's Republicans break away from the shrill voice of the tea party and return to the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan?"