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Its clout waning, Tea Party less focused on budget fight

Some of the House members elected with Tea Party backing in 2010 led the revolt last week that prompted Speaker John A. Boehner to cancel a House vote on a plan to avert a year-end fiscal crisis.

AP/File

Some of the House members elected with Tea Party backing in 2010 led the revolt last week that prompted Speaker John A. Boehner to cancel a House vote on a plan to avert a year-end fiscal crisis.

NEW YORK — The Tea Party might not be over, but it is increasingly clear that the election last month significantly weakened the once-surging movement, which nearly captured control of the Republican Party through a potent combination of populism and fury.

Leading congressional Republicans, though they remain far apart from President Obama, have embraced raising tax revenues in budget negotiations, repudiating a central tenet of the Tea Party.

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Even more telling, Tea Party activists in the middle of the country are skirting the fiscal showdown in Congress and turning to fringe issues, raising questions about whether the movement still represents a citizen groundswell to which attention must be paid.

This month, grass-roots leaders said that after losing any chance of repealing the national health care law, they would press states to ‘‘nullify,’’ or ignore, it. They also plan to focus on a two-decade-old United Nations resolution that they call a plot against property rights, and on “fraud” by local election boards that, some believe, let the Democrats steal the November vote.

But unlike the broader, galvanizing issues of health care and the size of the federal government, which ignited the Tea Party, the new topics seem likely to bolster critics who portray the movement as a distraction to the Republican Party.

“People in positions of responsibility within the Republican Party tolerated too much of this,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. He blamed a backlash against “tinfoil hat” issues pushed by the Tea Party-dominated Legislature in New Hampshire for the loss of a Republican majority in the state House last month and a near loss in the Senate.

Republican leaders “looked the other way too often,” he said. ‘‘They sort of smiled, winked, and nodded too often when they should have been calling ‘crazy, crazy.’ ”

The movement is not going away — most Republicans in the House have more to fear from primary challengers on their right than from Democratic challengers.

But surveys of voters leaving the polls last month showed that support for the Tea Party had dropped precipitously from 2010, when a wave of recession-fueled anger over bailouts, federal spending, and the health care overhaul won the Republicans a majority in the US House.

The House members elected with Tea Party backing in 2010 forced onto the national agenda their goals of deep cuts in spending and changes in entitlement programs, embodied by the budget blueprints of Representative Paul D. Ryan, who became Mitt Romney’s running mate.

And some of those lawmakers led the revolt last week that prompted Speaker John A. Boehner to cancel a House vote on a plan to avert a year-end fiscal crisis by raising tax rates on household income above $1 million.

But the Tea Party activists have not been front and center in the fiscal fight.

A number of Republican leaders said the Tea Party seemed headed toward becoming just another political faction, not a broad movement. It may rally purists, but it will continue to alienate realists and centrists, they said.

“I think the Tea Party movement is to the Republicans in 2013 what the McGovernites were to the Democrats in 1971 and 1972,” said Don Gaetz, a Republican who is president of the Florida Senate.

“They will cost Republicans seats in Congress and in state legislatures. But they will also help Republicans win seats.”

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