Nine Senate Republicans yesterday joined 169 of their House colleagues in defying the small- government Tea Party movement by voting to pass a bipartisan budget deal, the latest marker in an internal power struggle that could redefine the party.
By rebuffing the Tea Party groups and their Washington- based allies, including FreedomWorks and Heritage Action, many of the Republicans are risking primary challenges. Depending on their outcome, those contests could either curb or embolden the confrontational impulses inside the party.
“I think members of Congress understand that when determining whether or not to challenge an incumbent, the first thing we do is we look at their score,” said Barney Keller, a spokesman for Club for Growth, an anti-tax group which is supportive of the Tea Party.
By “score,” Keller means a list of “key votes” that the Tea Party and other groups maintain on members of Congress, a target list used to identify political friends and foes.
Once a vehicle more-commonly used by abortion rights groups, the National Rifle Association, labor unions and trade associations, the scoring of votes has proliferated with the rise of the Tea Party and it serves to document fissures between the Republican small-government wing and the business community.
The process of identifying a “key vote” varies: the National Federation of Independent Business determines its criteria after a lengthy balloting process of members; at the anti-tax groups, aides simply make the decisions and spring into action.
While the U.S. Chamber of Commerce annually publishes a glossy pamphlet with the vote information, Heritage Action and FreedomWorks keep up-to-date tallies of how lawmakers measure up on their scorecard and post them on their websites.
“Thirty years ago, it would have been difficult to disseminate the information quickly,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. “Now you can post material and your supporters can see it instantly. That makes a difference. It’s greatly increased the tempo of politics.”
In the case of the $1.01 trillion budget deal sent to President Barack Obama for his signature, Club for Growth’s scorecard called for opposition while the Chamber urged passage.
The threat of bucking the Tea Party’s recommendations was most evident in the Senate, where at least seven of the dozen Republican incumbents seeking re-election next year already are facing small-government opponents in primaries.
The budget passed the chamber on a vote of 64-36, with nine of the Senate’s 45 Republicans supporting it. Of them, only one, Maine Senator Susan Collins, is facing re-election.
In addition to campaign challenges, the Tea Party movement’s influence rests in its ability to match their adversaries in fundraising.
The Club for Growth and FreedomWorks spent a combined $36 million in 2012 elections, most of it in primary races. The Chamber spent $36 million, mostly in general elections to defeat Democrats. The chamber recently said it’s planning to engage in primary races next year to protect or promote business-oriented candidates.
Blair Holmes, a chamber spokeswoman, said her group often finds common ground on economic issues with the anti-tax groups, and, when they differ, the chamber often prevails.
“The Chamber is a staying power,” Holmes said. “We’re not going anywhere. We’ve been around 101 years. Our position is articulated to Congress and it’s our job as an issue-advocacy group to earn their votes.”
Tea Party groups say they are willing to part ways with business organizations over matters that smack of “corporate welfare” or government bailouts.
“People feel they are compelled to come here and play the game, hire an army of lobbyists” and promote special interests, said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, a group aligned with former South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint. “We want to get rid of that influence.”
The pressure is beginning to wear on Republican lawmakers, who are increasingly being told by outside groups how they must vote to avoid a political backlash.
“Scorecards went out the window with the government shutdown,” said Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, referring to the 16-day partial government shutdown in October.
“I haven’t got any interest in how they score things. It once was a measurement tool, and now it’s a threatening tool. That’s about all it is,” he said.
That said, Burr was among the Republicans who opposed the budget deal in the Senate yesterday.
Differences between the goals of Tea Party groups and business have existed since FreedomWorks first entered the political fray a decade ago and scored members on such proposals as reducing transportation funding even as business groups endorsed more spending.
The splits accelerated after 2008’s debate over the bailouts of the financial and auto industries, which conservative groups opposed as business groups backed them.
In the past two years, the two sides have squared off on issues including changes in immigration law, a multiyear highway bill, and an end to the brinkmanship over raising the nation’s debt ceiling.
The outside groups insist there will be no let-up next year.
Keller and officials at FreedomWorks and Heritage Action said they are likely to declare a “key vote” on any long-term highway measure that includes a gas-tax increase; the Chamber supports that funding mechanism for a multiyear measure.
Business-backed measures such as a five-year extension of agriculture programs also could face a drive for “no” votes because the small-government groups want to cut food stamp aid that traditionally is part of such legislation.
Also potential targets for the scorecards: reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which provides loan guarantees to purchasers of U.S. exports, and reauthorization of the Amtrak passenger rail system, which includes government subsidies.
One of the groups, Heritage Action, has attracted lawmakers’ ire because of the sheer volume of its key votes -- nearly 60 some years compared with about two dozen for the Chamber -- and by taking actions that seem contradictory.
The group earlier this year urged House Republican leaders to strip food stamps from a farm bill deal and deal with funding the aid program separately. When they did, Heritage Action still urged lawmakers to vote against the bill.
“They’ve been too aggressive with their key voting or have been less than honest about their key voting with members,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who was once a top aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
The frustration among some Republican lawmakers over the infighting spilled over last week when House Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, dismissed as “ridiculous” the groups’ opposition to the budget deal.
Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, said he sees Boehner’s jab at the groups as a sign that congressional Republicans are ready for a more confrontational posture with the groups.
“We’re now in new territory in view of what the speaker said,” King said in an interview.
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