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Why did tea partyers surrender? Because January will be different, they say

Tea party Republicans emerged from the budget battle whose terms they had defined weary, battered, and with nothing to show for the fight beyond having fought it – and for some, that’s a victory.

After 16 days of a partial government shutdown, Republicans failed to force the Democrat-controlled Senate and the White House to defund, delay, or even discuss the president’s signature health reform, known as Obamacare. 

But the takeaway for a core group of conservative lawmakers is that the next spending fight, on track for mid-January, will play out on more favorable terms for hardline conservatives.

Be sure, for them, this isn't over. Not by a long shot.

Their argument, which was taking shape even as their failure to extract concessions from President Obama this week was becoming plain, turns on two points. They believe the more time Americans have living with the consequences of health-care reform, the more sympathetic they will be to efforts to defund it. And they argue that by early next year, many of the Republicans who criticized their hard-line approach may be facing well-funded 2014 primary opponents from the right, and may feel compelled to switch their allegiances.  

“The debt will be bigger and Obamacare will be more unpopular,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R) of Ohio, at a luncheon for conservatives hosted by the Heritage Foundation on Day 16 of the shutdown.

By Jan. 15, when a new stopgap government funding measure runs out, Americans will have had another two months to see how the Affordable Care Act plays out. If glitches in the rollout aren’t resolved, if people lose their employer coverage, face higher insurance costs, or come to believe that the new law is costing good, full-time jobs, they will see this week’s lost battle in a new light, tea party lawmakers say.

If the Affordable Care Act doesn’t live up to expectations, then it will be Democrats, especially in red states, who will be on the defensive, along with moderate Republicans seen as missing in action in recent weeks. Looking back, the tea party’s loss over the debt limit could look heroic, such conservatives say.

“People will see that every promise President Obama made about Obamacare was false,” said Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho, also at the luncheon. “In the last election, we didn’t fight, and now we’re showed the American people that we’re willing to fight, even if it doesn’t look good today.”

It’s a view that many senior Republicans, openly engaged in a widening civil war within the GOP, describe as wrongheaded and dangerous to what’s left of the Republican brand.

“In democracies, the majority sets the agenda, and the majority said through the ballot box [in 2012] they don’t want Obamacare defunded, and I respect their opinion,” says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who, as the GOP presidential nominee in 2008, campaigned against health-care reform and lost.

“If [tea party Republicans] try to shut down the government again, it won’t be greeted with great approval,” he adds.

In a floor speech before the Senate vote, tea party Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, who worked with House hardliners on this strategy, blasted Senate Republicans for “directing their cannon fire at House Republicans” on defunding Obamacare.

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio and other GOP leaders had tried to convince the hardliners in the GOP caucus that their party would be damaged by a government shutdown, and that lawmakers should settle for funding government and raising the debt limit without conditions, then fight to take back the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016. He offered Republicans a 41st vote to defund Obamacare, not linked to funding the government.

But the hardliners held out for a high-stakes fight that Mr. Boehner, reluctantly, adopted as his own. Outside groups such as Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, and FreedomWorks peppered Republicans with notice that key votes on the issue would be “scored,” a thinly veiled threat that members not deemed conservative enough could expect a well-funded primary challenge next year.

In the runup to the fight, Heritage Action funded $500,000 in online ads calling on 100 House Republicans to “stop funding Obamacare,” that is, to back the tea party’s defund campaign.

After two years of essentially show votes, we “finally had a chance to take on Obamacare,” says tea party Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R) of Kansas. 

The move put Republicans on record in the fight and also forced red state Democrats to take a vote that could haunt them in 2014 elections. But in the end, it stood zero chance of clearing the Democrat-controlled Senate or a White House veto threat.

GOP hardliners and the outside conservative groups supporting them had predicted that, if House Republicans took a stand to defund Obamacare, they would be backed by a surge in public opinion. Such a “popular uprising” would force Senate Democrats to take up the House plan and Mr. Obama to sign it, they said.

Instead, disapproval for how Republicans had handled the crisis soared to 74 percent, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll.

On Wednesday, 87 Republicans in the House and 18 in the Senate joined Democrats to fund the government and ease the debt limit. Nine of the 80 House Republicans who had signed a letter in August calling on Boehner to adopt the hardline strategy voted with Democrats to end the shutdown with health-care funding intact.

As the hardliners they see it, their side lost a skirmish in this week’s vote, but they’re fighting a long-range, two-front war: one against health-care reform (a “train wreck”), the other against the Republican Party establishment, especially in the Senate (the "surrender caucus”).

By the next skirmish, many of the 20 House moderates who led the campaign against them, as well as the Senate Republicans who refused to join their fight, could be facing primary challenges from the right, they say.

“We have a lot of primary challenges already filed, and a lot of folks might change their minds if they have primary challenges,” says Representative Huelskamp.

Political handicappers say it’s too early to tell how much of a threat these primary challenges will be.

“I don’t know that opinions will change as much as some of these conservative House members believe they will,” says Jennifer Duffy with the Cook Political Report in Washington. “It’s enormously expensive to get into a Senate race. Ted Cruz ran for two full years.”

But activists on the right do not concede that their moment has passed.

“This battle is still going on,” says Adam Brandon, a spokesman for FreedomWorks, which supports tea party candidates. “It will take years to figure out who won and who lost. As long as you have a $17 trillion deficit and Obamacare is falling apart, there’s going to be a political debate.”

“People refer to it as the Republican civil war,” he adds. “But if the Republican Party purges libertarians and tea partyers, all that you hear about this regional party of old white men is going to become true. This is merely a pause as the battle lines continue to roll up.”

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