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With U.S. government reopened, conservative groups dig in

By Gabriel Debenedetti

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The conservative wing of the Republican Party spent no time licking its wounds after failing to roll back Obamacare as part of the last-minute fiscal deal, and pledged on Thursday to redouble its fight.

"Giving up on the Obamacare fight is giving up on the American people. We're not going to give up," declared an email signed by Heritage Action executive Michael Needham.

Heritage Action was among a handful of groups leading the conservative Tea Party movement's campaign to defund Obama's signature healthcare law - a push that shut down the federal government for 16 days, nearly resulting in an economically disastrous default on U.S. debt.

In the end, Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner blinked, and allowed a vote on a Senate plan that included a short-term increase in the debt ceiling and governing funding through January 15. The measure got 82 Republican votes - enough to secure its passage.

The Club for Growth, another staunchly conservative group, said it will direct it efforts through its political action committee.

On Thursday it endorsed Mississippi Republican State Senator Chris McDaniel in his race against Senator Thad Cochran, who voted for the fiscal deal and is up for re-election next year.

It is the third primary challenge to sitting lawmakers that the group has endorsed, and the second against a Republican.

"We'll have more," Club for Growth President Chris Chocola told Reuters in an interview. "The last couple weeks may have defined our opportunities a little bit better."

The government's partial shutdown ended shortly after midnight on Thursday, capping a standoff that left hundreds of thousands of federal employees without work.

The final agreement, crafted by Senate leaders Democrat Harry Reid and Republican Mitch McConnell, set up a budget fight that will likely stretch into early 2014.

The deal included no measures to roll back Obamacare, and Republicans widely viewed that as a defeat. But as the party tries to regroup, some leaders criticized the groups leading the effort to defund the president's program.

'RADICALNESS'

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch told MSNBC on Thursday that the Heritage Foundation - where Heritage Action is based - was "losing (its) reputation because of some of this radicalness."

Grover Norquist, the anti-tax advocate and president of Americans for Tax Reform, said that proponents of defunding Obamacare "hurt the conservative movement, they hurt people's healthcare, they hurt the country's economic situation, and they hurt the Republican Party."

Norquist, who had urged a one-year delay in Obamacare as recently as August, said the defunding movement had gone too far.

But Chocola kept up his criticism of Obamacare and the Republican leadership for ultimately agreeing to a deal.

"I don't know if it was a deal, it was an outcome. And it was a bad outcome," the former Republican representative from Indiana said.

Obamacare, he said, is "nothing more than a new entitlement. ... It's unaffordable, bad healthcare - which is a bad combination."

Chocola's Club for Growth has been the largest donor to Republican Senator Ted Cruz, whose 21-hour floor speech helped set the stage for the partial shutdown.

Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler offered a similar assessment, saying his group will consider running advertisements if it sees opportunities to attack Obamacare.

He said the group intends to press lawmakers to explain their votes in favor of funding the law.

"If you're a Mark Pryor in Arkansas or a Kay Hagan in North Carolina, you had your chance" to oppose the deal, he said, referring to two Democratic senators up for re-election next year in conservative states.

"It's a liability for them, and it's something they're going to need to explain," Holler said.

Heritage Action is the political wing of the Heritage Foundation, the Washington-based conservative think tank run by former Tea Party Republican Senator Jim DeMint.

On Tuesday it helped scuttle a planned House vote by threatening to highlight lawmakers' votes on the group's closely watched scorecard. All but two of the 25 members with a score of least 90 percent on its card voted against the final deal.

Chocola said he was not satisfied with the vote, or even the options that were presented.

"Our position was, 'we're going to fight for the best thing offered.' And the only thing offered was Ted Cruz's position (to defund Obamacare)," he said.

The groups have not unveiled specific plans for the next budget fight.

Holler of Heritage Action said it was "too early to say exactly where the legislative leverage may exist in the coming months or what approach(es) would maximize that leverage."

(Reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Xavier Briand)

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