By CHARLES BABINGTON and LAURIE KELLMAN
WASHINGTON — The clout of tea party advocates and other hard-line conservatives in Congress has caught top Republicans by surprise, raising questions about whether GOP leaders can impose enough discipline in their House majority to pass tough measures, such as raising the debt ceiling.
Within 24 hours this week, House Speaker John Boehner’s team had to pull a trade bill from the chamber floor, suffered an embarrassing setback on a USA Patriot Act vote, and failed to recoup money paid to the United Nations.
And in electoral politics, the tea party’s threat to Republican incumbents came more into focus. Three GOP senators up for re-election in 2012 could be looking at challenges for their party nominations. One of them, five-term Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, crossed town Tuesday to tell the tea party’s national town hall that he has supported its budget-balancing, smaller-government agenda for decades.
Democrats and Republicans said the events show that GOP leaders have yet to gauge the full extent of libertarianism and independence in their newly swollen ranks. Republicans gained control of the House thanks to sweeping victories last fall, many involving tea party loyalists.
“If they’re divided on an issue like the Patriot Act, it’s a bad omen for things to come regarding unity on their side,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. “It’s only going to get tougher for them when it comes to budget issues.”
Many congressional Republicans want to slash spending beyond levels their party leaders support. GOP leaders say Congress must raise the federal debt ceiling this spring to avoid dire economic problems. Judging from the week’s events, it may be a tough sell.
All three House setbacks can be reversed. The Patriot Act and U.N. votes needed super majorities under expedited House rules, and Republican leaders probably can pass them later with simple majorities. Likewise they can try to build enough support for the trade measure.
House Republican leaders Wednesday shrugged off suggestions that they’ve lost control of their caucus.
“We’re not going to be perfect every day,” Boehner told reporters. He noted that Tuesday’s effort to extend provisions of the Patriot Act failed partly because it was opposed by three dozen Democrats who previously had supported them.
The Patriot Act vote would have extended the life of three surveillance tools central to the nation’s post-Sept. 11 anti-terror law. The 277-148 vote fell short of the two-thirds majority required under the expedited rules.
Voting nay were 26 Republicans, many of whom have libertarian leanings and are wary of government intrusion in private lives. Joining them were 122 Democrats.
A similar vote occurred Wednesday on a bill to force the U.N. to return $179 million the United States paid into the U.N. tax equalization fund. The 259-169 vote was short of the two-thirds threshold.
Some lawmakers said GOP leaders had failed to give colleagues enough details about the trade and Patriot Act bills, and therefore they overestimated the level of support. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a tea party favorite, said freshmen lawmakers didn’t have “adequate time to digest” the contents of the Patriot Act bill.
“I hope it makes us get sharper,” said King, who supported the act’s extension.
Boehner said the Patriot Act provisions will be extended under a simple-majority vote soon.
When asked why the bill was brought up under the two-thirds majority rule, Boehner glared at the reporter and said, simply, “It was.”
Another Republican leader Wednesday tried to cool the cost-cutting fever of tea partiers. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., proposed ending more than 60 government programs and cutting $35 billion in spending.
Cutting more deeply at this point, Rogers told colleagues, could lead to furloughs of federal workers at the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency, or politically wrenching cuts to health research, special education grants to local school districts, or college Pell Grants.
There were other signs in Washington this week that Republicans are still grappling with the influence, or threat, wielded by fiscally conservative, libertarian-leaning members. Not all are associated with the tea party, but the tea party movement has boosted their numbers and clout.
Besides Hatch, veteran Republican Sens. Dick Lugar of Indiana and Olympia Snowe of Maine could face re-election challenges from tea party candidates in two years. Neither attended the town hall Tuesday evening.
Hatch’s remarks at the tea party “town hall” were carried or commented on by C-SPAN, Facebook, Twitter and other outlets.
His appeal reflected the belief that tea party activists could oust him next year in the GOP nominating process. That’s what happened to his colleague Bob Bennett, the veteran conservative senator who critics accused of being too willing to compromise with Democrats on some issues.
Hatch saluted the tea party for waking up the electorate, and ticked off a list of policy positions he shares with the movement: support for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget; repeal of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul; a general distrust of big government; and a zeal for cutting spending.
“I for one want to thank the tea party for what they’ve done,” Hatch said.
Associated Press writer Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.