National Tea Party leaders in California were thrilled about one by-product of the political bloodbath over raising the federal debt ceiling: The fight showed that after two years of rabble-rousing from outside the Capitol, the Tea Party has real power to shape the debate in Washington.
Their challenge now that President Obama has signed the debt limit law: Can the Tea Party transform its government-shrinking mantra into long-term power, or will it be a one-hit wonder?
They're not stopping to think about it. This month, Tea Partiers will storm town hall meetings of Republican and Democratic members of Congress and demand even more cuts. It's the same strategy Tea Party groups used two years ago to protest - and ultimately water down - the health care reform law when they burst on the national scene.
"You're going to see a lot of heat at those meetings," said Mark Meckler, a Grass Valley (Nevada County) resident and co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, a national organization that called House Speaker John Boehner's plan to lift the ceiling "an embarrassment."
Tea Partiers say the debt deal didn't cut enough federal spending, was crafted behind closed doors, and assigned responsibility for further cuts to a small, joint committee of Congress.
That heat will be stoked further on Aug. 27 in Napa, when thousands of supporters and at least two GOP presidential candidates are expected to attend a rally to start a Tea Party Express bus trip across the country. It will end in Tampa, where the group will co-host a Republican presidential debate with CNN.
Two years ago, the idea of the Tea Party co-hosting a debate with the self-proclaimed "most trusted name in news" was unimaginable.
"They've changed the debate," said Sal Russo, a longtime Sacramento GOP operative who is now the chief strategist for the Tea Party Express. While the Tea Party has minimal impact in California, several of its national leaders are based here.
"They haven't been able to get the government turned around, but this is a fundamental switch in how they're talking about cutting government and not growing it," Russo said.
The strategy of Tea Partiers during the debt-ceiling debate, "whether it was thought through or not, was ingenious," said Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University and author of "Stalemate: Causes and Consequences of Legislative Gridlock."
"By taking the issue of the debt ceiling hostage" by taking a hard-line position against raising the debt ceiling, "they were able to keep pulling the policy choices over to the right," Binder said.
"What was so brilliant about this is that the consequences (of not listening to them) were so steep, the White House almost had to blink," Binder said.
Helping the Tea Party's cause was that their supporters were more engaged in lobbying Washington than before.
Twenty percent of GOP Tea Party supporters contacted an elected official about the federal budget deficit in the past month, compared with just 5 percent of Republicans who don't agree with the Tea Party, according to a survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.
Challenge to sustain power
Another mark of the Tea Party's influence is that its political opponents are name-dropping them - albeit negatively.
Said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland: "We cannot allow the extreme Tea Party Republicans to advance their agenda to dismantle our government by rewarding their extreme tactics with this bad deal."
Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., said, "The Tea Party acted like terrorists in threatening to blow up the economy" in a meeting with Democrats this week.
The Tea Party influence was felt in the debt-ceiling debate, but little more than half of the 60-member House Tea Party caucus voted for the bill Monday. That makes Binder and other analysts wonder whether the Tea Party can sustain its power.
Binder said that "holding hostage" the debt ceiling is an issue - unlike immigration, for example - whose consequences affect every American. She wondered how cohesive the House Tea Party bloc is. Only 41 of them - out of 240 House Republicans - voted against the budget deal in April and the debt ceiling package Monday because neither included cuts deep enough to satisfy them, Binder said.
For now, Tea Party passion is hot in local districts. Some Tea Partiers want to support primary challengers against lawmakers who supported Boehner, such as Tea Party darling Rep. Allen West, R-Fla.
"One minute they're saying I'm their Tea Party hero, and three, four days later I'm a Tea Party defector," West said last week on Laura Ingraham's syndicated conservative radio show.