By Matea Gold
September 27, 2013

The clash in Congress over efforts to derail President Obama’s health-care law has lit up tea party groups across the country, reenergizing activists who had drifted away from the movement while intensifying the divisions tearing at the Republican Party.

The standoff, which threatens to plunge the federal government into a financial crisis, has served as a rallying cry for a cadre of conservatives, who are bombarding lawmakers with phone calls, e-mails and social media messages backing a last-ditch effort to hobble the health-care law.

It was the passage of that legislation, commonly known as Obamacare, that animated the movement when it first emerged in 2009.

“I’ve not seen this level of intensity since we fought to keep Obama­care from passing,” said JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America, a group of conservative activists based in Tyler, Tex. “I’m getting calls from people who are not in our network, saying, ‘Can we do something?’ It’s a full-time job just trying to get rid of all my e-mails.”

But the tea party’s renewed presence also poses serious political risks for Republicans, undermining efforts to broaden the party’s appeal. The movement itself could be blamed for contributing to Washington’s dysfunction if it helps set in motion a government shutdown next week or, later in October, a national credit default.

“In the overall scheme of things, it’s largely a sideshow,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, a former top Capitol Hill aide, said of the current Obamacare debate roiling Congress. “However, it has stolen the spotlight from the president’s weaknesses and put it right on Republican infighting, and showed a lack of direction about where we want to go strategically as a party.”

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