WASHINGTON - John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, is under attack from conservatives for his apparent purge of top Tea Party representatives from two key congressional committees.
Tea Party organizations and high-profile conservative commentators are spewing venom after four Tea Party darlings were removed from their positions after bucking the party's leadership in crucial votes over the past two years.
"There is strong evidence that they were removed solely because their votes were not in lockstep with leadership," Matt Kibbe, the president of the pro-Tea Party FreedomWorks organization, wrote in an open letter to Boehner on Wednesday.
"It seems plain that the leadership hopes to enforce party discipline by punishing dissent. When did it become a crime to stand up for fiscal common sense and constitutionally limited government?"
The dust-up could signal the end of the Tea Party's influence over the party's leadership. The deficit-detesting, anti-Big Government movement has been a thorn in Boehner's side since 2010, when a slew of Tea Party candidates helped the party win back control of the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections.
Since the Nov. 6 election, Kansas congressman Tim Huelskamp and his colleague from Michigan, Justin Amash, have lost their spots on the House budget committee.
North Carolina's Walter Jones and David Schweikert of Arizona, meantime, were kicked off the House financial services committee.
All four legislators were vehemently opposed to the so-called "grand bargain," a tentative deal reached between U.S. President Barack Obama and John Boehner in the summer of 2011 that allowed for the nation's debt ceiling to rise in exchange for US$1 trillion in spending cuts.
Public opinion following the collapse of that deal was overwhelmingly anti-Republican.
Three of the lawmakers also voted against Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan's sweeping budget proposals passed by the House in March.
Boehner reportedly insisted in a closed-door party meeting on Wednesday that his beef with the congressmen wasn't about ideology, but their disloyalty to the party and their colleagues.
His decision to boot them off the committees "was not done lightly," he told his fellow Republicans, according to a report on RollCall.com.
He also pointed out that other outspoken Tea Party candidates have kept their spots on various committees. There have been suggestions that Boehner suspected some of the ousted lawmakers of leaking embarrassing stories about their colleagues to the media.
The oustings highlight trouble in the Republican ranks in the aftermath of the party's bitter electoral defeat in November. And they come on the heels of reports suggesting the Tea Party movement itself is in a state of disarray.
Shortly before FreedomWorks took public aim at Boehner, Dick Armey, a longtime Republican operative who helped found the organization, quit his job.
"The top management team of FreedomWorks was taking a direction I thought was unproductive, and I thought it was time to move on with my life," Armey said.
He reportedly departed over concerns about a book Kibbe is writing that will personally net him millions of dollars.
While Boehner's office has insisted the congressional oustings were based on a "range of factors," a Schweikert spokesman said the legislator was told he'd voted "against the team" too many times.
Huelskamp has gone public with his displeasure.
"The GOP leadership might think they have silenced conservatives, but removing me and others from key committees only confirms our conservative convictions," he said in a statement.
"This is clearly a vindictive move, and a sure sign that the GOP establishment cannot handle disagreement."
On his Facebook page, Amash chimed in: "What message does leadership's heavy-handedness send? It says that independent thinking won't be tolerated ... It says that voting your conscience won't be respected."
Heritage Action, another major Tea Party organization, accused Boehner of ulterior, Obama-sympathizing motives, saying he was trying to find "creative ways to fund" the president's socialist agenda as they attempt to hammer out a deal to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff of automatic spending cuts and tax increases at the start of the new year.
"In 1990, President George H. W. Bush broke his solemn pledge: 'Read my lips: no new taxes,'" the group wrote in an email to supporters.
"It cost him the election. In more than 20 years since, congressional Republicans have avoided making the same mistake. And now, as our nation's economy is struggling to produce growth, our leaders in Congress are about to make precisely the wrong decision."
Some high-profile conservative commentators, including Michelle Malkin and Erick Erickson, have taken to social media to urge the party to "purge Boehner."
"As the sun rises this morning we can look at John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and Kevin McCarthy and know the opposition is not just across the aisle, but in charge of our own side in the House of Representatives," Erickson wrote on the RedState.com blog.