WASHINGTON — The Republican establishment's much-anticipated pushback against the tea party wing is underway. House Speaker John Boehner made that clear Thursday, when he renewed his denunciation of groups that try to defeat GOP incumbents they consider too willing to compromise with Democrats.
Some Republican loyalists wonder what took so long. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently took steps to help mainstream Republicans in party primaries, but Boehner's high-profile outburst will move the effort to the GOP's front burners.
Cheering him on are mainstream Republicans who angrily watched for three years as hard-right groups exercised remarkable clout in the party, the Congress and elections. Tea party-backed nominees helped the GOP win control of the House in 2010, but they also lost several Senate races seen as winnable, keeping the Senate in Democratic hands.
This past summer, uncompromising House Republicans forced a partial government shutdown that damaged the party's image, just as Boehner warned it would.
Many Republicans also feel conservative activists pushed presidential nominee Mitt Romney so far to the right on immigration and other issues that it eased President Barack Obama's path to re-election last year.
"The establishment has no choice at this point," said former Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who has criticized the tea party's growing influence. "So they're taking them on."
"To follow these groups is a downward spiral," Davis said.
Those groups will fight back hard, Davis warned, and it's not clear which faction will prevail in next year's midterm elections and beyond. "They're dug in pretty hard," he said.
For a second straight day, Boehner criticized groups such as Heritage Action, the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity. These Washington-based organizations vary on priorities and tactics. But all have sharply rebuked Republican leaders on key issues. And they have aided insurgent Republican challengers who vow never to compromise with Democrats, even if it means shutting down the government or defaulting on the federal debt.
Critics say the groups chiefly want to raise money by constantly inflaming political activists.
"They're misleading their followers," Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters at the Capitol. "I just think that they've lost all credibility."
The issue at hand was a bipartisan budget plan that makes modest changes in spending levels. It is meant to avert another government shutdown and budget crisis in the near future.
But Boehner's remarks appeared aimed more broadly at tea partyers who say true conservatives never compromise, and at groups that try to oust established Republicans seeking re-election.
House actions under his speakership, Boehner said, "have not violated any conservative principle, not once." He then dismissed the activist groups, saying, "I don't care what they do."
Some Republicans fear an all-out struggle between the establishment and the tea party wings, saying both factions' money and energy are crucial to winning elections. But others say tea party excesses leave little choice.
Even after tea party-backed nominees fumbled away likely GOP Senate victories in Delaware, Indiana and elsewhere, the groups continue to target prominent Republican veterans. They include Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is seeking a sixth six-year term.
In an early swipe at anti-establishment forces, the Senate's Republican campaign committee called for an essential boycott of a consulting firm working for McConnell's challenger.
"We can only take so much from these guys that are out there on the ledge," Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said. He faces a tea party-backed challenger in his bid for a ninth House term. The Chamber of Commerce, which traditionally has done little in Republican primaries, is airing ads for Simpson.
The chamber also helped defeat a tea party-backed candidate in a special House primary in Alabama last month.
Conservative activists say Boehner and others will regret their moves. Groups like Heritage Action and the Club for Growth have tens of thousands of followers, said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., who has often feuded with Boehner.
"For any Republican to ignore them is dangerous to them electorally," Huelskamp told reporters. Tea party activists were crucial to the Republicans' breakthrough victories in 2010, he said. If party elders say, "We don't need you anymore," he said, millions of conservatives may sit out future elections.
Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler said his group won't back down. When Boehner writes off the dozens of House members who won't compromise on tax and spending issues, it means "he's going to rely heavily on Democrats" to pass legislation, Holler said. That's bad for conservative principles, he said, and bad for GOP cohesion in elections.
Boehner's allies say the alternative is worse. When Boehner tries to placate the staunchest conservatives in his caucus, they say, the results are a government shutdown, a major loss on the "fiscal cliff" deal a year ago and other Republican embarrassments.
Sixty-two House Republicans voted against the Boehner-backed budget deal Thursday, requiring dozens of Democratic votes to pass it.
Steve LaTourette, a Boehner friend and former GOP House member from Ohio, said he is heartened by the stepped-up actions by Boehner, the Chamber and others frustrated by tea party tactics. He warned, however, that mainstream Republicans won't tame the tea party faction without huge amounts of effort and money.
The intraparty struggle, LaTourette said, "is a script that's yet to be written."