Congress cut short its July 4th recess and returned to Washington this week to try and reach a deal to raise the debt ceiling. Or, rather, some of its members are trying -- a growing number of Republicans responsive to the Tea Party movement seem dead set against this. They not only claim that the United States won't suffer any negative consequences if it doesn't raise the ceiling, but that refusing will have the salutary effect of forcing the government to live within its means.
A lot is at stake here. Just about everyone besides these Republicans believes that a debt default would be catastrophic. And most of them, including President Obama, would accept trillions of dollars in spending cuts to avoid finding out.
We'll know soon enough. The Treasury reports that as of August 2 the government will no longer be able to meet its obligations. Among the many things that will be revealed on the way is whether the Tea Party can plausibly claim to be a constructive force imposing a new regime of fiscal probity or whether it will bring about the political equivalent of a murder-suicide, wrecking the economy and taking the Republican Party over a cliff.
Both scenarios are entirely plausible -- a situation few could have envisioned when the Tea Party first rose up in the wake of the bailouts of Wall Street and the automotive industry in 2008. The movement's influence has turned out to be almost the opposite of what most people expected. Initially, the Tea Party was regarded as a powerful grassroots electoral force, but probably not one that was going to change the bipartisan culture of Washington profligacy.
That view reflected the widespread expectation that most of its members would go native upon arrival in Washington and rapidly come to resemble those who they had replaced.
But for the most part, this hasn't happened. While the Tea Party movement helped Republicans carry the House last November, the limits of its electoral capacity were clear. Its candidates probably cost Republicans a number of key Senate races.
Where the Tea Party has been much more successful is in the profound effect it has had on Washington. At a time when the Democrats control most of the government and voters are obsessed with the weak economy -- the latest Gallup poll shows 55 percent identifying the economy or jobs as their top issue, against only 13 percent who name the federal deficit -- the singular focus in Washington is the Tea Party's prime concern: cutting the federal budget.
What's more, they are on the cusp of an almost unimaginable triumph. Until about a week ago, a grand bargain with Democrats and the White House seemed very near at hand in which spending would be cut by as much as $4 trillion over the next decade or so. These cuts included hundreds of billions from cherished entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid that conservatives have longed to confront for years, but from which they have always flinched for fear of the backlash that would inevitably ensue. Democrats have extended them a once-in-a-generation free pass, and ask remarkably little in return. In fact, the opening bid from the White House met the demands laid down in March by House Speaker John Boehner that any deal comprise 85 percent spending cuts and 15 percent revenue increases.
But key Republicans have decided they cannot abide any such deal, no matter how favorable to their own cause, a stunning reversal of position brought about by the Tea Party's refusal to consider any tax increase and mainstream Republicans' fear of getting crosswise with them. Crazy as this sounds, a number of Republicans from gerrymandered conservative districts appear more frightened of Tea Party wrath than the prospect of bringing about economic calamity (which would hurt those activists along with everyone else).
It's not too late. On Tuesday, the president reiterated his desire to cut trillions in spending and to do what politicians rarely do: forgo a smaller deal for something very much harder but of historic magnitude, which by the Tea Party's own professed standard, would represent a tremendous victory and establish it as one of the most successful forces in recent political history. But for the time being, its legacy seems to be approaching an ominously different outcome.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.