WASHINGTON — Tea party activists and other conservatives, eager to transform electoral gains into clout on Capitol Hill, are pressuring Republican leaders to take a hardline approach in the next Congress, shunning compromise for confrontation with Democrats.
The strategy is likely to bring gridlock on major issues – particularly tax cuts and spending – and make it more difficult for President Barack Obama and Congress to find common ground on virtually any measure. It’s also leaving key Republicans, in charge of the House and with larger numbers in the Senate, less room to maneuver as they seek to show they can make the big changes they’ve promised.
GOP leaders have bowed to the pressure already this week.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said he’d go along with a ban on the practice of earmarking – lawmakers steering federal spending to pet projects in their states and districts – and GOP senators adopted the idea unanimously late Tuesday. That averted an internal party fight over the issue and gave the tea party a high-profile victory reflecting its growing influence.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said he’d go along with a ban on the practice of earmarking – in which lawmakers steer federal spending to pet projects in their states and districts. The decision narrowly averted an internal party fight over earmarks, and gave the tea party a high-profile victory reflecting its growing influence.
The change “clearly demonstrates the continuing importance of the tea party movement,” said Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots, a coalition of local groups. “While many pundits have questioned our postelection status, our agenda-setting demand for the elimination of earmarks is a clear indication of our intent to carry out the will of the 2010 election results immediately and for many years to come.”
Conservative leader Richard Viguerie said: “Today begins the process of repairing the Republican brand.”
Even before taking House control in January, Republicans led by Speaker-to-be John Boehner of Ohio have been adamant in insisting that Congress take action before adjourning for the year to extend all the Bush-era tax cuts now scheduled to expire in January. Obama, who has resisted preserving the cuts for the wealthiest taxpayers, has signaled he’ll be willing to do so temporarily, an approach that some Senate Republicans are weighing.
Speaking to tea party activists Monday, GOP Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana said, “There must be no compromise” on the matter.
Beneath the rhetoric is a concrete effort by tea party-aligned leaders to quickly show lawmakers and the public that they will be a force in high-stakes policy decisions, not just a fleeting grass-roots phenomenon.
“A lot of activists right now feel like they got a win on (election night) and they want to put another one in the win column as quickly as possible,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden. “Tea party leaders recognize that voters have sent a very specific message and they want to make sure that their success is going to be measured daily, weekly, monthly.”
Some Republicans worry that kind of pressure could so intimidate GOP lawmakers that they’ll be unwilling to cut bipartisan deals on major issues, particularly on addressing the exploding federal deficit and strengthening the economy.
“This groundswell, this movement has never happened before, so everybody recognizes that he or she might be vulnerable in the next primary election, much less the general election, so that makes them more cautious,” said former GOP Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York.
Boehlert, known during his time in Congress for crossing party lines to vote with Democrats, said voters clearly want change in the way Washington works, and Republicans will pay a price if they can’t show they’re willing to compromise.
“There can’t be one side saying ‘no’ and the other side saying ‘yes,’ and never the twain shall meet, because if this election taught us anything, it’s that anyone can be vulnerable if they don’t show they can get something done,” he said.
For now, however, many on the right still sound like they’re in campaign mode. When tea party activists gathered on Capitol Hill Monday for lawmakers’ first day back since the elections, they made it clear they expect Republicans to flatly refuse to go along with Democrats’ proposals.
Phil Kerpen of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity said the GOP should band together to try to kill a catchall spending measure to fund government operations through the end of the year.
“No Republican better help them,” Kerpen said menacingly, to hoots and cheers from a raucous crowd.
Many of those assembled held signs that said “We’re watching you,” and as Republican lawmakers took their turns speaking to the crowd, some yelled the same message.
GOP leaders say they welcome the grass-roots enthusiasm that’s coming out of the elections and argue that – far from complicating their task – the tea party movement and the freshman lawmakers it helped elect are adding momentum to their agenda of tax and spending cuts and rolling back the health care law.
In a nod to the potency of the freshmen, Boehner said Tuesday he would give them even more say on key decisions. He said he’d add a second elected slot to his leadership team for a first-termer and a third to a powerful panel that doles out committee assignments.
Still, tea party activists have already demonstrated they’re willing to be a highly vocal thorn in the side of GOP leaders. At Monday’s rally, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., an outspoken favorite of the movement whose brief bid for a leadership post got the cold shoulder from Boehner and his inner circle, was introduced as “our leader” in the House.
She went on to refer to the government as “a gangster government” and said if Republicans don’t bow to the public’s demands, “then you had better turn us out, too.”
The pressure is particularly acute on the more than 80 incoming GOP lawmakers elected this month, some with substantial help from tea partiers. Leaders of the Tea Party Patriots orchestrated an electronic onslaught over the weekend directed at the Republican freshmen, angry that a group backed by lobbyists and campaign consultants was holding a rival orientation retreat for the newcomers in Washington.
The lawmakers’ personal cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses were posted, and supporters were urged to instruct them to attend the tea party event instead.
“Don’t let them steal OUR members of Congress,” the message said.