WASHINGTON — The US Tea Party stood at a political crossroads Tuesday, split by a vote on raising the US debt limit after fractious negotiations that saw them declared both the big winners and losers.
At issue was the role that the young movement, born of anger at the sour US economy and stoked by establishment Republicans eager to harness its energy, could play in President Barack Obama's fight for reelection in November 2012.
"I think nothing really changes. This is, to us, the beginning of the debate," Republican Senator Rand Paul, one of the Tea Party's champions in the polarized US Congress, told AFP when asked what would happen next.
"We're going to continue to promote solutions, as opposed to deals. I think this is a deal, not a solution," Paul said of the 11th-hour compromise agreed by Obama and top Republicans to avert a disastrous debt default.
Paul shrugged off public opinion polls showing that the Tea Party emerged from the spectacle of the acrimonious six-months-long debt debate with its image tarnished.
"I don't see anything about my perception of the public's will that tells me I need to do less. They tell me I need to keep doing the same thing and tell me to stand my ground," the Kentucky lawmaker said.
A fresh survey from the Pew Center that studies US public opinion found that 42 percent of Americans had a less favorable view of Republicans, 37 percent thought less of the Tea Party, and 30 percent viewed Democrats less positively.
Republican respondents were among the most divided: 56 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who agreed with the Tea Party said their impression of members of Congress tied to the movement had improved.
But just four percent of Republicans who disagree with, or are neutral towards, the Tea Party, said they felt more positively about the movement, against 27 percent who reported thinking more negatively.
Political analysts said the split would ultimately matter little and predicted Republicans would unite behind their standard-bearer in the November 2012 race, when the party hopes to retake the White House.
"Those fissures are going to recede, and the Republican party is likely to become more united on the issue of creating jobs and attacking Obama's record," according to Matt Dickinson, a political scientist at Middlebury College.
Dickinson noted then-president Bill Clinton overcame lackluster approval ratings to coast to reelection in 1996 after campaigning in large part against congressional Republicans he convinced voters were radical.
But while Obama might be similarly politically "blessed by his enemies," Clinton "was never in these dire straits economically," Dickinson told AFP recently.
A senior Republican senate aide agreed, telling AFP: "We could have the party broken into 17 factions in open warfare, but by summer of 2012 everyone will be holding hands against Obama."
Other key Tea Party figures joined Paul in ultimately opposing the legislation, arguing the massive austerity deal they helped to pull sharply rightward was ultimately insufficient to get Washington's fiscal house in order.
They included Republican Representatives Michele Bachmann as well as Republican Senators Mike Lee and Jim DeMint -- widely considered the Tea Party's most influential patron in the US Congress.
"It's time to stop the 'hot air' in Washington and let the winds of true change, economic growth and job creation spurred by the private market sweep through this country. Someone has to say NO to more spending. I will," said Bachmann.
In the House of Representatives, however, 59 of the so-called "freshmen" elected in November 2010 elections shaped by the Tea Party ultimately sided with Republican leaders in backing the legislation, while 28 opposed it.
And more than half of the "Tea Party Caucus" in the House backed the bill.
House Republicans were more united behind the bill than Obama's Democratic allies, who broke 95-95 amid angry criticisms that the bill cut middle-class programs while failing to increase taxes on the rich and wealthy corporations.
That doesn't mean Tea Party adherents will set aside their often fiery, take-no-prisoners approach, said Dickinson.
"A good chunk of them think they are doing God's work, so they are not amenable to the kinds of deals that more pragmatic lawmakers, like their leaders, may find reasonable," he said.