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John Boehner's Budget Outburst Shows Right-Wing Groups Have Jumped The Shark

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WASHINGTON -- With an emphatic "Are you kidding me?!" aimed at right-wing Washington groups, House Speaker John Boehner this week may have finally pronounced the verdict that activist outfits, prosperous amid the tea party movement, have jumped the shark.

The Ohio Republican lashed out twice at organizations that have invited themselves to the tea party since 2009, blasting groups like Club for Growth, Heritage Action, FreedomWorks and others on Wednesday as "ridiculous" for opposing a bipartisan budget deal before they even saw it.

And Thursday he declared, albeit two months after the fact, his stunned disbelief that some of their leaders admitted they knew their bid to defund Obamacare by shutting down the government last fall would fail. Boehner accused them of "misleading their followers," and using House Republicans and the American people to promote themselves.

"Frankly, I just think they've lost all credibility," Boehner told reporters at his weekly news conference.

Maybe they have, and maybe they haven't. But Boehner was at least declaring war on the well-funded agitators who have given him agita for three years. And he marked the 16-day government shutdown showdown as the moment they hopped over the line to absurdity -- much the way the aging TV show "Happy Days," stretching for fresh plot lines, infamously put the leather-jacketed character "Fonzie" on water skis to leap a man-eater.

The question now is whether Boehner's outburst -- and more importantly the subsequent overwhelming vote for the budget deal -- means the influence of such outside groups will simply collapse, or whether it will limp along for years like the old '70s sitcom did.

Few senators leaving the Capitol Friday (the House already had recessed for vacation) were willing to answer that question directly, but some seemed to suggest that such organizations would no longer have as easy a time reaching out to scuttle key deals, as they did during the October shutdown battle.

"I think many people are realizing that many of the outside groups exist for one reason, and that is to raise money," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told HuffPost, echoing Boehner's charge. "They have nothing to do with policy -- never did. If the goal posts are set, they'll move 'em … There's almost nothing that can be done to satisfy some of the groups.

"I think that people have begun to see through the antics of many of these groups," Corker added.

The issue is especially relevant -- and fraught -- for Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who runs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which could win back the Senate by netting six seats in 2014. The NRSC can fairly blame tea party candidates for costing them at least five seats in the previous two election cycles, including Nevada in 2010 and Indiana in 2012. To avoid a replay, it must deal with primary challenges in seven or eight contests, and secure candidates with crossover appeal against the many red state Democrats they've targeted.

On the one hand, Moran wants the energy the tea party brought in 2010. On the other, he doesn't want all-or-nothing candidates who embrace the shutdown model.

"Hard for me to ever complain that Americans get involved in our government and encourage us to do things, one way or the other. I'm for more participation, not less," Moran said. But he added that while lawmakers should listen to outside interest groups, "we need to make certain that we don't make decisions based upon that alone."

For the 2014 contests, that means Moran will do what he can to ensure tea party purity is not the litmus test. "What I'm hoping is that people will decide that they are interested in supporting a candidate that can win not just a primary, but also a general election," he said.

He doesn't believe -- and neither apparently does Boehner -- that most voters want absolutist politicians.

"I think there's a large group of American people, voters, who are interested in seeing this place work, seeing the Senate and House function, who dislike the constant political bickering that goes on here," Moran said. "We at every opportunity -- without foregoing our principles -- ought to demonstrate that we can govern."

Moran said he didn't like the budget deal that made the GOP strife so prominent this week, but he also did not say that he would try to obstruct the deal the way many Republicans -- led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) -- did during the October showdown.

Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action -- the campaign arm of the Heritage Foundation -- denied it was more interested in itself, asserting that the organization's efforts were indeed about promoting conservative policy.

"We just want to make sure lawmakers are having an honest, fact-based discussion with their constituents," Holler said.

And he argued the influence of groups like his merely suffered a dip during the House passage of the budget bill they robustly oppose. "I do think there was an element of fatigue here in Washington, where people were tired, and that tends to happen, but then the American people are tired of Washington," Holler said.

He predicted that the conservative base would come around to the organization's way of thinking on the budget agreement, and that Republican lawmakers would have trouble explaining why they were willing to trade across-the-board spending cuts in 2014 and 2015 for proposed cuts in 2022 and 2023.

"If they can explain that to their constituents, then they're in good shape. If they can't explain it to their constituents, chances are they're going to have a little bit of trouble," Holler said.

A more telling moment than this week's House budget vote (and next week's in the Senate), he said, would come in January when lawmakers have to pass the $1.012 trillion spending bill the budget prescribes.

"It'll be an interesting dynamic, and I think when this comes to a head will be in January," Holler said. "That sort of massive bill rolling through a Republican-controlled House is going to be really painful for a lot of these guys."

And he predicted that if the GOP leaders ignored the disapproving opinions of the outside groups, conservative voters would see that as a betrayal they would remember next fall.

"The reason what we say matters, the reason what Club (for Growth) says matters, the reason why FreedomWorks has influence is because people outside of Washington trust us. And those conservative activists are also voters and constituents," Holler said.

"These conservative activists are smart, and they tend not to forget when they're cast aside," he added. "There's a whole lot of open questions here about how is this going to play out in 2014."

At least some outside Republican consultants think Boehner essentially answered those questions by declaring Republicans would no longer be slaves to self-appointed guardians of conservative doctrine and their vote scorecard. The speaker had to go along with the fall shutdown strategy to show once and for all that the path of the outside groups leads to a dead end, they said.

"I think that once they headed down that road in September, that [Boehner] decided the only thing he could do was give them all the rope he could," said long-time GOP operative Rich Galen, with the implicit idea that the groups hung themselves in what turned out to a deeply unpopular gambit.

Boehner's dramatic denunciation served not just to say he was back in charge, but also to tell the broader spectrum of voters and major donors that they could trust the GOP again, Galen said.

"I think it's less Fonzie, and I would look at it more as a Sister Souljah moment," Galen said, referring to then-Arkasas Gov. Bill Clinton's calculated denunciation of rap artist Sista Souljah in 1992 when he wanted to reassure moderates he wasn't a left-wing ideologue.

But Galen also suggested the "Happy Days" comparison is correct, in that there's no un-jumping the shark of the government shutdown.

"It's the peak of their influence, not just with the tea party members," Galen said. "Their influence over legislation is probably permanently damaged."

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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