By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The bitter ideological feud tearing at the Republican Party boiled over on Thursday as the U.S. Congress considered a bipartisan budget deal with angry recriminations between the Republicans' top elected leader and the powerful conservative organizations that have been tormenting him for years.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner said the outside groups had stepped over a line and "lost credibility" in fighting the deal.
The president of FreedomWorks, one of the Tea Party-oriented organizations attacked by Boehner, responded that conservatives have had it with "old bulls" who "miss the old ways of doing things" in Congress.
The immediate spark for the exchange was an effort by the well-funded groups - the Club for Growth, Heritage Action and FreedomWorks - to undermine a bipartisan budget deal backed by the leadership of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, particularly Boehner.
The groups believe the agreement does not go far enough to curb federal spending. Historically, as well, they do not like deals with Democrats.
But the fury that came from the usually buttoned-up Boehner was pent-up.
The same organizations, wielding their considerable clout with conservative rank-and-file House members, had pushed Boehner against his better judgment into a September funding showdown over demands from the small-government, low-tax Tea Party movement for a delay or defunding of Obamacare, President Barack Obama's healthcare law.
That led to a 16-day government shutdown and a plunge in standing in polls for Republicans.
And some of the Tea Party members of his caucus in the House had done their best to oust Boehner as speaker last year.
Boehner was having no more of it.
"Frankly," Boehner said of the outside groups at a news conference, "I think they're misleading their followers. I think they're pushing our members in places where they don't want to be. And frankly, I just think that they've lost all credibility."
"You know, they pushed us into this fight to defund Obamacare and to shut down the government. Most of you know, my members know, that wasn't exactly the strategy that I had in mind," Boehner told reporters.
"But, if you'll recall, the day before the government reopened, one of the people at one of these groups stood up and said, 'Well, we never really thought it would work.'"
Then, Boehner grabbed the podium and raised his voice for emphasis: "Are you kidding me?" he said.
'THROWING IN THE TOWEL'
"I'm surprised" at Boehner's comments, said FreedomWorks' President Matt Kibbe.
But "I'm surprised by this deal. I feel like the House Republican leadership has given up," Kibbe said. "This (deal) isn't just a step in the wrong direction. They gave away everything ... they are throwing in the towel."
Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action, an affiliate of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said he had no idea why Boehner erupted in anger at the outside groups at this time.
Boehner, he said, "has poked the entire conservative movement in the eye. I don't know what that portends for legislation next year ... but if you are poking conservatives in the eye, they are not going to be motivated to knock on doors next fall," a reference to the 2014 congressional elections.
"If you have an alienated base, heading into an election, you are going to be in a huge amount of trouble," Holler said.
Representative John Fleming, a Louisiana conservative who plans to vote for the budget deal, said both sides may be overreacting - Boehner and the outside groups.
"I think the outside groups should be a little more analytical about these agreements and I think he (Boehner) should maybe be a little more measured in his response," he said outside the House.
Fleming said conservative groups thought any deal with Democrats was a bad one.
But "when I went to look at this bill ... the more I read it the better I liked it," Fleming said. "It does hold true the basic principles of conservatism. It doesn't raise taxes. It doesn't add to the deficit. It adds needed dollars for defense ... and it keeps us on the same lower spending curve that we were already on. So I have to ask myself, What's wrong with that?"
"There is a lot of talk about so-called civil war between outside groups and the leadership," FreedomWorks President Kibbe said.
"I think there is a fight for the soul of the Republican Party in the House Republican caucus."
(Editing by Fred Barbash and Jim Loney)
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