WASHINGTON - U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann headed off an intra-party fight when she dropped her bid for a House leadership spot last week, but her candidacy showcased the divisions surrounding the Tea Party's newfound presence inside the Republican Party.
When House Republican leaders swiftly rejected her provocative bid for GOP conference chair, the No. 4 position in the House, it underlined her status as a party outsider despite her rising national profile.
One Washington Post columnist said afterward that the Minnesota congresswoman had the "worst week in Washington." Almost immediately after Bachmann launched her leadership bid, nearly all of the top House leaders lined up behind rival Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling. And she was snubbed from the 22-member GOP House transition team that included several new Tea Party House members.
Bachmann has kept a low profile since dropping out of the leadership race, and was unavailable for comment for this story.
But Bachmann, who took credit for mobilizing the foot soldiers who won back the House for the GOP on Nov. 2, is still a Tea Party star with a huge megaphone -- one that she could turn on both Democrats and those she differs with inside the Republican Party.
She remains at the helm of the 52-member Tea Party Caucus, which will likely grow from the influx of Republican freshmen, and she donated to more than 20 new Republican members from her record-breaking fundraising haul.
She returns to the public eye Monday as Congress heads to Washington for a lame duck session. Bachmann is speaking at a rally hosted by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative-leaning group that is calling on Republicans to keep an earmark moratorium and de-fund "Obamacare."
"I think we'll see a Michele Bachmann who is not afraid to criticize her party when she feels like it's compromising too quickly," said Kathryn Pearson, a University of Minnesota political scientist.
Bachmann is likely to be front and center when conflict arises between the Tea Party and the "establishment" wings of the GOP, playing a major role in just how loudly the Tea Party objects to perceived slights from a Republican House leadership that's trying to govern with a Democratic Senate and president.
Many in the Tea Party are calling for House Republicans to wage a fierce battle over ending earmarks and repealing the new federal health care law, and won't want them to back down if attempts to de-fund the health law and other spending threaten to shut down the federal government.
Working from the outside, Bachmann should have an easier time criticizing soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner than if she had been able to join the top Republican ranks.
"She's a key inspirational leader for our movement," said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity. "I don't think the leadership contest within the House Republican Caucus impacts that in any way."
A seat at the table
Even before the votes had been counted on election night, Bachmann hinted at her interest in a leadership position.
The day after the election, current GOP Conference Chair Mike Pence of Indiana announced he was stepping down. Bachmann and Hensarling both declared their candidacy before the end of the day.
In her pitch to House members, Bachmann said the Tea Party swept the GOP into power and the movement deserved a place in leadership.
"It is important that our conference demonstrate to the people who sent us here that their concerns will be tirelessly advanced at the table of leadership," Bachmann wrote to House colleagues.
But Hensarling, a four-term congressman who considered running for a leadership spot previously, had a jump on Bachmann's last-minute bid and cultivated more supporters, said John Fortier, a research fellow at the right-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute.
"She has a following in the Republican base that's much greater than Jeb Hensarling and many other House Republicans, but that doesn't directly translate to votes in the caucus," Fortier said.
Speaking her mind
While Bachmann's leadership bid faced long odds, she didn't help her cause by making one of the statements last week that have made her such a polarizing figure.
In an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, Bachmann claimed that President Obama's trip to Asia was costing more than $200 million per day, calling it an example of wasted taxpayer money. The claim was widely debunked by both the White House and fact-checking agencies, but she stood by it.
Bachmann has made a national name for herself with rhetorical flourishes against Democrats that are often inflammatory and sometimes inaccurate, and the latest incident gave critics fresh ammunition. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in his endorsement of Hensarling that the GOP needed someone "who had command" of the issues and "a history of successfully debating them."
Bachmann has since endorsed Hensarling and says she backs Boehner and the rest of the leadership. But Phillips noted that Bachmann "is not in the least bit timid about speaking her mind," and he expects she will call out Republicans if they don't live up to Tea Party standards.
"I think expectations are high," Phillips said, "and people have a very short patience."
Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723