By Caren Bohan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - There are signs that the conservative Tea Party movement has pushed other Republicans in the U.S. Congress too far and that a counter-revolt may be brewing.
The clearest signal came on Monday evening, when more pragmatic Republicans moved to crush efforts by a trio of Tea Party-backed Senators - Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Marco Rubio - to paralyze the Senate unless they get their way on the government funding bill that scuttles Obamacare, President Barack Obama's healthcare law.
The tactic of using the threat of a government shutdown to defund Obamacare had already come under a barrage of public criticism from Republican voices. They include more than a dozen Republican senators, the Wall Street Journal editorial board, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, strategists Karl Rove and Steve Schmidt, who advised Senator John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign against Obama.
"For the last couple of years," Schmidt said on MSNBC on Monday, "we've had this wing of the party running roughshod over the rest of the party" saying "'we're going to purge, you know, the moderates out of the party.'"
Schmidt called on Republicans to "stand up against a lot of this asininity."
Whether the pushback represents the start of something lasting remains to be seen.
At the moment, some Republicans say the reaction is the result of a specific situation that could lead to a shutdown- and a catastrophe for Republicans in next year's congressional elections.
A BRIDGE TOO FAR
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called it a "bridge too far" to shut down the government if Obamacare is not defunded and said it could dash any hopes the party has of wresting control of the Senate from Democrats next year.
"There's a belief that getting the majority (in the Senate) in 2014 is possible and we don't want to go down roads that make it harder," Graham said. "Defunding Obamacare is a goal all Republicans share but the tactics we employ in achieving that goal can have a backlash."
Graham and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were among the Republicans who have made it clear that they would join with Democrats to collect the 60 votes necessary prevent a paralyzing Senate filibuster by Cruz, Lee and Rubio that would have led to a shutdown.
A big test will come in a few days in the House of Representatives, the hotbed of Tea Party support and an unruly place these days, with the formal leadership structure no longer in control.
The House is the source of the bill now in the Senate to condition the funding of the government on defunding Obamacare, a move initially discouraged by House Speaker John Boehner, who ultimately yielded under pressure.
When the Senate strips the funding bill of the Obamacare provision, as expected, Republicans in the House will be called on to agree or disagree with the Senate.
If Congress avoids a government shutdown, a more serious battle looms during the next six weeks over whether to raise the U.S. debt ceiling. House of Representatives Republican leaders want to use the debt limit as leverage to push for a delay in Obamacare. They believe the strategy could unify the party.
TEA PARTY INFLUENCE
The Tea Party - which is not a political party but rather a conservative movement that demands a reduction in the U.S. national debt and the budget deficit, by reducing government spending and taxes - has no more than 50-80 adherents in the U.S. Congress, four or five of them in the Senate.
In fact, pressure to defund Obamacare now is coming from groups besides the Tea Party. The Club for Growth, an influential fiscally conservative advocacy group founded in 1999, is also pushing hard, threatening challenges against members who vote what they see as the wrong way on Obamacare.
The Tea Party's influence comes from the fact that mainstream Republicans and Democrats in Congress rarely work together anymore. If they teamed up occasionally, they could crush it, as they did last January when Democrats and Republicans resolved a standoff over the so-called fiscal cliff of tax hikes and across-the-board budget cuts.
That is what is likely to happen in the U.S. Senate this week as it completes its work, and it is the way the House may go if it manages to avoid a shutdown: Democrats voting with some Republicans, leaving those worried about a conservative backlash to dissent.
Numerous Republicans have called the effort to cancel funding for Obamacare futile, because neither the Democratic-controlled Senate nor Obama would ever agree to block funding of the president's signature healthcare law.
Many Republicans worry that a government shutdown would anger voters, harming the party in a repeat of what happened after the government shut in the mid-1990s.
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer said Republicans would end up like sushi - cut up into little pieces - if they followed the strategy.
Other conservatives say the tactic will wind up helping Obama get back on his feet after a rocky few months.
"What could possibly rescue Barack Obama from all these political problems and create a distraction that takes all his scandals off the front page?" conservative writer Thomas Sowell wrote in the National Review Tuesday. "Only one thing: the Republicans."
"By making a futile and foredoomed attempt to defund Obamacare, congressional Republicans have created the distraction that Obama so much needs."
Capitol Hill aides and Republican strategists say the criticisms are part of a backlash against Cruz, leader of an effort called "Defund Obamacare," who has worked with the conservative group Heritage Action for America to push the strategy.
Republicans said there is rising anger at Cruz for putting lawmakers in a difficult position: they strongly dislike Obamacare but don't want to back a strategy they see as doomed.
"It's impossible to understate the level of frustration right now, both in the House and the Senate," said a Senate Republican aide, who requested anonymity to discuss the mood among Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Another Republican aide said "Cruz fatigue" was settling in among Senate Republicans.
A website called "DontFundIt," run by Cruz and Heritage, is targeting other Republicans by name for not going along with the defunding move.
Republican strategist Charlie Black said Cruz was putting Republicans in an "awkward position" as he uses the Senate as a platform to speak to conservative activists outside Washington.
Cruz is reveling in the criticism. His rebellion against Washington's ways has made him an even bigger hero to Tea Party Republicans. He has become a constant presence on conservative television and radio shows in the past few months.
Every day now, Cruz said Tuesday as he began a marathon speech on Obamacare before a largely empty chamber, "I pick up the newspaper to learn what a scoundrel I am."
"....The chattering class is quick to discipline anyone who refuses to blindly fall in line," he said. That's "the way Washington plays. There are rules. You are not supposed to speak for the people."
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, Rachelle Younglai and Richard Cowan.; Editing by Fred Barbash and Christopher Wilson)