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david shribman

Was that the cracking of ice we heard in the chill of a Washington December?

Probably not. Republicans and Democrats did come together to forge a small but not unimportant budget agreement in recent days, and so the very achievement of something that would have been unremarkable only a half-dozen years ago seemed like the movement of the Royal Canadian Navy Wind-class icebreaker CCGS Labrador through the frozen Arctic. But huge challenges remain for an American political class that has transformed budget fights into interminable, inscrutable and ultimately intolerable ordeals.

And hundreds of thousands of Americans were able to enroll online for health-insurance programs, which seemed like big news until you realize that millions still haven't signed up. A program that affects about one-seventh of the American economy and that increasingly is being regarded as a test of government's ability to administer large intrusions into the marketplace still has not won the confidence of the American people, a full 50 per cent of whom consider the health-care law a "bad idea," according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll.

Still, some things of significance happened in Washington as Congress struggled to complete its work, lawmakers sought to return home for the holidays, and the Obama administration worked to iron out the bugs in its health-care computer programs.

First, the Republicans. Tensions inside the GOP, until this month largely under the surface, spilled out into the open, and the House Speaker, John Boehner, lashed out at conservative groups that he suggested had been manipulating some members of his caucus.

"Frankly I think they're misleading their followers," Mr. Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, said of these conservative activist groups, many of which describe themselves as members of the Tea Party movement. "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."

For about two years these groups, and the Republican conservatives who have harnessed their power to win seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, have been irritants for Mr. Boehner, who only a decade ago was himself regarded as a devout conservative. Their opposition to Obamacare prompted the government shutdown earlier this year and congressional Democrats and White House officials blame Washington's political paralysis on this group's insistence on deep budget cuts accompanied by its resistance to new government revenues.

Indeed, Mr. Boehner made it clear last week that the government shutdown "wasn't the strategy I had in mind."

Many of the Republican rebels criticized the most recent budget agreement, which was pushed by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee and until last week a cult hero among conservatives.

The Tea Party isn't going away anytime soon, however, especially since it considers itself the heir to a great American tradition of protest against tyrannical rulers, starting, of course, with the rebels of the original Boston Tea Party 240 years ago this week.

In both cases, Richard Samuelson, a historian at California State University in San Bernadino, argued in the most recent issue of The Weekly Standard, "we have a fight to preserve self-government, legal questions regarding the constitutional limits of the government's powers and the structure of constitutional government, and the inability of a distant elite to distinguish between vigorous citizens and unthinking rabble."

This fight, inside the Republican Party and across Capitol Hill, is only just beginning.

Now to the Democrats and the administration. Barack Obama's disapproval rate, according to the Journal/NBC survey, is at 54 per cent, which is not exactly an endorsement of a president who was re-elected only 13 months ago. The budget agreement ameliorated what Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, one of the architects of the plan, called "uncertainty [that] was devastating to our fragile economic recovery." It also avoided yet another Washington shutdown but provides little of a path forward for budget negotiators on Capitol Hill.

Even so, Mr. Obama seems to have chosen a path for the remainder of his administration. In his eulogy of South Africa's Nelson Mandela and in remarks on the economy he delivered in Washington earlier this month, the president seems determined to use the three years that remain in his presidency to address economic imbalance and social mobility.

In his Washington speech, the president spoke of "an economy that's become profoundly unequal and families that are more insecure" and argued that increased economic inequality in the United States "challenges the very essence of who we are as a people."

This is brave, ambitious talk for any president, but especially so for a president without a strong mandate or strong public support, and who faces a Republican House that remains opposed to him despite that faint cracking of institutional ice that was evident this month. The president's rhetoric – fiery, determined – sets up even more struggles between the two parties, and promises even more confrontations with a conservative insurgency that, Mr. Obama almost surely has realized, also sees itself rooted in fundamental American values.