- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 13, 2014

Tea party leaders said Thursday they aren’t to blame for the debt limit increase that Republican leaders helped approve this week, saying the GOP’s problem isn’t divisions in the ranks but lack of spine at the top.

The split between tea party groups and Republican leaders — House Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — has never appeared deeper than it does this week, after the two men provided the key support that passed a 13-month debt increase with no strings attached, delivering a major victory to Democrats.

“Quite frankly, we just tune them out,” said Amy Kremer, head of Tea Party Express. “They have no spine and they will not fight for anything.”

The debt has always been a tough vote for Republicans, but in previous fights they’d been able to unify on at least some concessions they attached to increases in the debt limit. This time around, they weren’t able to unite — some tea party Republicans said they couldn’t accept any debt increase, while others disagreed over what conditions to offer.

That left GOP leaders with no negotiating position, and they acquiesced to Democrats’ demand for a “clean” increase.

“It’s the fact that we don’t have 218 votes,” Mr. Boehner said ahead of the vote, explaining his surrender. “And when you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing. We’ve seen that before, and we’ll see it again.”

But Judson Phillips, a leader of Tea Party Nation, said Mr. Boehner has frittered away numerous opportunities to go to war for conservative principles.

Boehner does not want to fight,” Mr. Phillips said. “He has never wanted to fight. He started from the weakest possible position and then when someone pointed that out he acted like a petulant child and said, ‘Fine, I’ll just give up.’ And he did.”

Political analysts, though, said Mr. Boehner had in fact run out of options, and his capitulation may have saved the GOP from a self-destructive fight with no winners.

“I have seen no indication that Democrats would trade anything for anything so that tactic would likely result in making Republicans look extreme and foolish again,” said Charlie Cook, of the Cook Political Report. “One by one, Boehner is removing obstacles to Republicans having a bad election. Whether his members like or understand or not.”

Nate Persily, a Stanford Law School professor who specializes in redistricting, said Mr. Boehner’s inability to build a winning coalition among Republicans is a reminder of the limited power leaders now hold over their rank-and-file members. Mr. Persily said some of that can be attributed to the fact that a lot of lawmakers come from lopsided districts where appeasing right- or left-wing voters with ideological purity is more important that striking deals in Washington.

“The districting sometimes will make certain people less beholden to their party and more beholden to the voters in the district and as a result speakers are not able to whip them into line with something they disagree with,” Mr. Persily said.

“It used to be if someone was going to fear a primary challenge it would be that the party would launch it,” he said, adding that is no longer the case in part because of the flood of money that outside groups are now spending on campaigns.

For its part, the tea party brand is increasingly unpopular with voters.

A Gallup poll released in December said that 51 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of the movement, while just 30 percent had a favorable view — a gap of 21 percentage points. In 2010, when the movement first took off, the gap between unfavorable and favorable was just 3 percentage points.