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After Budget Fight, No Sign Of Cease-Fire

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, speaks to reporters following a meeting with President Obama at the White House on Oct. 2.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, speaks to reporters following a meeting with President Obama at the White House on Oct. 2.

As it dragged on in recent weeks, the debate about the budget, the debt ceiling and Obamacare felt like an epic battle.

But now that it's over, there's reason to think it was actually only another skirmish during the long period of partisan warfare Americans have become accustomed to.

The polls, the pundits and certainly Democrats all suggest that the GOP's Tea Party wing got its clock cleaned. After shutting down parts of the government for more than two weeks, Congress on Wednesday approved a spending bill that included essentially nothing from the Tea Party's wish list.

But conservatives sounded anything but resigned in defeat.

"While the political debate has ended for the moment, like any prizefight there are many rounds," Republican Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana wrote in USA Today. "We must continue to fight on."

Congress has set itself new deadlines for dealing with both the budget and the debt ceiling early in the coming year. And the new law calls for high-level budget negotiations to take place between the House and Senate in the coming weeks. But no one seems terribly optimistic that they'll come up with a package that will please all sides.

"I view this as another skirmish, and there will probably continue to be more," says Craig Robinson, editor of The Iowa Republican, a news and opinion site. "What it shows, especially [at the moment], is there's a wide split among the Republican Party."

A Fractured Party

One reason to think there willl be more rancor ahead: festering Republican divisions. Conservatives who wanted more out of the budget deal did nothing to conceal their unhappiness. A clear majority of the House GOP conference — 144, to be exact — voted Wednesday night against legislation that reopened the government and averted a debt default.

Many continued to sound warnings about the dangers of a national debt that will soon exceed $17 trillion, while putting the blame on President Obama for being intransigent.

"With this ... deal, Washington Establishment wins, rest of America loses," tweeted GOP Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas.

Republicans have also turned their fire on one another, using terms such as "lunacy" and "no intelligence" in describing their colleagues.

Those were comments from California Rep. Devin Nunes of California and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, respectively, who were critical of their own party's confrontational strategy. Republicans who favored taking a harder line have loudly complained that they were undermined by such commentary coming from their own ranks.

"It'd be a good idea if they stopped referring to other Republicans as Hitler appeasers because they opposed the strategy they put forward, which failed," Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and a longtime GOP activist, told National Review.

How To Reach Agreement

In theory, Republicans should be able to put this ill will behind them. Debate will turn from the shutdown strategy to questions of tax and spending levels — ground on which nearly all Republicans will be able to find agreement.

But the GOP argument has never been about numbers so much as about tactics. Republicans agree that the Affordable Care Act is a bad law and that the federal government should spend less money.

The question has been how far to push those beliefs when faced with a Democratic Senate and president. "Compromise is not treason," GOP Rep. Richard Hanna of New York, who supported the latest budget deal, said in a statement.

Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is already saying that another government shutdown is off the table. Meanwhile, more pragmatic Republicans still want their Tea Party colleagues to wake up and count the votes and realize they picked a battle they couldn't win.

As yet there's no sign, despite the plunge the party has taken in the polls, that harder-line conservatives are feeling very much tempered.

"Their emotional and electoral sustenance is coming from people who agree with them," says Andrew Rudalevige, a government professor at Bowdoin College in Maine.

"They can read the [national] polls, sure, but those are not their people," he says, referring to their generally conservative districts. "I don't think there's any reason to think the Tea Party folks are ever going to change."

Calling And Climbing Bluffs

Even assuming Boehner wants to take his party in some different direction, he has less leverage than leaders of the past. He doesn't have as many earmarks to give, and the threat of booting recalcitrant members off committees only seems to rile up their like-minded peers.

"The question is, can you have any negotiation here if you have, even on the debt thing, 144 members voting no, a clear majority of your caucus?" says Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas.

For their part, Democrats appear emboldened by having taken a "no ransom" line against the GOP and its demands. President Obama has said repeatedly he's "happy" to negotiate anything with Republicans, but it's not at all clear that Democrats will want to give Republicans much more of what they want.

"Every time we contrast our priorities with Republican priorities, voters side with our priorities," Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told NPR's Renee Montagne Thursday.

Democrats will be further emboldened by the fact that they were ultimately able to block the GOP, says Lewis Gould, author of Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans.

The Tea Party Republicans may have an even greater desire to come away with something to show from the next confrontation, he says, but they've already overplayed their hand.

"They've sort of had their bluffs called," he says. "The next time would have to be, 'We are going over the edge no matter what — no business community and nothing else is going to stop us from going over.' "

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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