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Weak Tea?

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Is the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party becoming irrelevant?

It's hard to draw any other conclusion to the news that the House Republicans have apparently agreed to extend the payroll tax holiday for the rest of the year -- without paying for it. The only open question is why the Republican leadership chose to throw in the towel without a fight. Perhaps the dismal single-digit approval ratings the American people have been consistently bestowing on Congress are beginning to be noticed. Perhaps, because it is an election year, Republicans in the House made a political decision that keeping their jobs was more important than grandstanding on the not-so-popular issue of raising everyone's taxes. Perhaps President Obama's call, in his State Of The Union speech, to move the bill through Congress with "no drama" sunk in (OK, well, probably not).

Whatever the reason, though, the Tea Party Republicans come out looking a lot weaker than they previously did. Tea Partiers, after all, are supposed to be all about the deficit and the debt. Yet here are the Republicans about to consent to adding $100 billion to this year's deficit, without even attempting to offset it with budget cuts. They're not even giving lip service to the idea any more. One wonders what the Tea Party rank-and-file voters are going to think about this deal, or whether a few Tea Party Republicans in the House will denounce it with fury in the conservative media.

But will any of that matter? Tea Party politicians swept into Washington swearing that they did not care about getting reelected -- they were going to stick to their guns no matter what the fallout politically for them would be. That was when getting reelected was two long years in the future, and when they were all enjoying their newly-won power. Now? Well, you know, it's kind of nice to be a politician... gee, it'd be really nice to get reelected and return to Washington next year, wouldn't it?

Perhaps that's a mite too snarky. Perhaps there are committed Tea Party Republicans in Congress who will not vote for the deal, and who will continue to try to get their way no matter what the political outcome. But, if this deal is any indication, they may be doing so from the back benches from now on, instead of setting the Republican Party's agenda themselves. They may, to put it another way, be relegated to "voices crying in the wilderness" status.

Up until now, Speaker John Boehner and the Republican leadership have been the dog wagged by the Tea Party tail. Boehner would try to hammer out a deal, and then bring the deal back to his caucus only to have them scream "Hell, no!" in his face. This has happened multiple times, most notably during the debt ceiling hike talks last summer. The Tea Party faction forced the rest of the Republican Party to adopt the position of digging their heels in and refusing to budge unless they got everything they demanded, and not one inch less.

By doing so, the Tea Party Republicans shut down Washington -- either figuratively, or quite literally, on the budget deals -- again and again. The Tea Party voting base cheered them on while they did so.

Times are changing on Capitol Hill, though. With the new deal on the payroll tax extension, the Republicans have signaled that they're tired of such shenanigans. Many Washington-watchers were fully expecting another knock-down, dragged-out fight over the extension -- complete with threats, hysterics in the media and last-minute votes taken in the dead of night. Using Obama's terminology, the expectation was for lots of "drama."

But now the drama has seemingly been averted. Boehner, by waving the white flag of complete and unconditional surrender, has signaled that the Republican Party is not going to stage yet another epic legislative battle. He's apparently agreed to exactly the opposite of what the Tea Party's core belief is centered on, by borrowing money to provide a stimulus to the economy. By putting the Republican Party in full retreat over this issue, Boehner may be signaling that the Republican Party establishment has had enough of the Tea Party running the show. All doing so has gained them, after all, has been an endless series of gigantic bickering matches which has driven Congress' approval numbers lower and lower. The more they fight, the worse the public thinks of them. Which is decidedly not the way to get reelected.

The Tea Party freshmen may be happy to go down in flames, fighting their good fight all the way to the end, polls be damned. But the Republicans who are only loosely associated with the Tea Party banner (those that opportunistically jumped on the bandwagon in 2010, because it seemed like a good idea at the time) may finally be realizing that there will be consequences in November for following the Tea Party mantra too far. Self-preservation seems to be more on their minds these days than railing about the deficit. The Tea Party hasn't been making all that much of a dent in the Republican presidential nominating contest, which may signal Republican voters are also getting weary of fighting all the time and never seeming to achieve their goals. Perhaps the Tea Party itself is on the wane.

Or, to end on a completely cynical note, perhaps the Republicans just didn't want to have one of their frequent week-long vacations affected by the payroll tax debate. After all, it's tough to take a vacation while millions of constituent paychecks are about to rise due to your inaction. Presidents' Day -- a day most private-sector American workers don't get off -- means a full week of relaxation for members of Congress. This break is due to take place next week, which would have left almost no time to get anything done afterwards. Which is why a deal had to be reached by this Friday.

How times change -- from Tea Partiers swarming into the halls of power in Washington swearing not to give an inch, to agreeing to a deal to hike the deficit by $100 billion for a Democratic proposal... just so you can have that full week of vacation back home. That's some pretty weak tea, at least from where I'm sitting.

 

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