The Tea Party Returns

PHOTO: Tea party activists attend a rally on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, June 19, 2013.J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
Tea party activists attend a rally on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, June 19, 2013.

Opposition to President Obama's healthcare law catapulted the Tea Party to national prominence three years ago, and now anger over the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups may be serving as a tipping point for a Tea Party revival.

And in the House of Representatives, where the movement's most ardent supporters reside, their influence is already being felt.

Most recently, the Republican-sponsored farm bill failed to pass through the House on Thursday in part due to Republican opposition to funding the food stamps program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. And earlier this week, House Speaker John Boehner caved to pressure from Tea Party-backed lawmakers on immigration reform.

Taken together, the farm bill's failure and Boehner's concession to anti-immigration-reform segments of his party appear to imperil the prospects for any bi-partisan legislation in the House — either on immigration or upcoming debt ceiling negotiations.

"This is the first time in months I've seen House conservatives full of energy and excitement. Farm bill defeat has encouraged them," said conservative pundit Erik Erikson on Twitter minutes after the bill went down, delivering a blow to Republican leaders in the House.

"I'm satisfied with the outcome," Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots. "With the way that the SNAP program is integrated into the farm bill, it's more government spending and we just need better control of government spending."

Lawmakers in Washington are emboldened by the growing sense of alarm within the Tea Party, which is still a relatively diffuse group of state or local-based groups that has managed to coalesce around a common opposition to the Washington establishment.

This week, thousands rallied on Capitol Hill against what they called the IRS's "abuse of power" and efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, backed by more than a dozen allies in the House and the Senate.

And though those lawmakers were all Republicans, they didn't hold back in holding their party leaders' feet to the fire.

"The concern, frankly, is that there are people across the country who have lost faith in government and lost faith in the elected officials," Martin said. "It's very hard to trust when John Boehner says he won't do this and bring an [immigration] bill forward."

Last week, several Tea Party-backed lawmakers, including the founder of the Tea Party caucus Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), circulated a petition calling on Boehner to respect the Hastert rule, which would require a majority of Republicans to support any bill the Speaker brings to the House floor, a move that essentially narrowed the path for an immigration bill in the House.

By Tuesday, Boehner appeared to close the door on the prospect of passing an immigration bill with a majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans, which he had expressed an openness to just one week prior.

"I don't see any way of bringing an immigration bill to the floor that doesn't have the majority support of Republicans," Boehner told reporters at a press conference on Capitol Hill.

While Senate Republicans and Democrats went to work almost immediately after the election to craft an immigration bill, opposition in the House appears to have only grown. And the bill's most vocal adversaries in the House are backed by a vocal Tea Party contingent.

Martin said that Tea Party activists are alarmed by the size and scope of a potential immigration bill, which they view as an "Obamacare" redux.

"The massive bill that's over a thousand pages now, the process through which it's going through the Senate, is very reminiscent of 'Obamacare,'" Martin said, adding that she does not believe a majority of Republicans would support an immigration bill.

And in many quarters of the Tea Party there is clear anger directed at Boehner, who has said that passing comprehensive immigration reform is a top priority in the House this year.

"I think he's kind of gone away from his beliefs and I don't know why," said Bethany Huber, a Tea Party activist who traveled to Washington this week from Peoria, Ill., and who opposes efforts to pass immigration reform. "From my perspective there seems to be people that started out with true beliefs and for whatever reason are falling away from that."

At a Tea Party rally on Wednesday, activists held up a "Boehner, can you hear us now?" sign. Another conjured up a more crude image with two toy balls attached to a message that read "Hey Boehner, since Odumbo took yours, try these."

Gohmert accused "Republican leaders" of trying to change the subject to "amnesty" with an immigration bill, instead of focusing on stopping President Obama's agenda.

Far from being tempered by Obama's reelection in November—where Republicans lost seats in the House, the Senate and the White House—the Tea Party movement and the lawmakers that carry their mantle in Congress seem emboldened to pursue legislation that is popular with their base, and that could serve to widen the ideological gap between the two parties.

"Part of the agenda is to ensure that House Republicans get reelected by and large because most of them come from conservative, safe districts," said Ron Bonjean, a Republican communications veteran of the House and Senate. "And they want to put down a record in order to protect themselves from more conservative candidates running against them in primaries."

But the effort to satisfy Tea Party and other more conservative voters in their districts has come largely at the expense of Boehner and other GOP leaders in the House who appear to have ceded control of the chamber to a minority of its most conservative members.

"What is happening on the floor today was a demonstration of major amateur hour," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., after the farm bill's failure. "If we ever came to you when we had the majority and said we didn't pass a bill because we didn't get enough Republican votes, well, you know, that's really -- it's silly."

"It's sad. It's juvenile. It's unprofessional. It's amateur hour."