Tea Party’s Power Tested With Lawmakers Divided Over Budget Cuts

U.S. budget talks are testing the Tea Party’s power as Republican freshmen in Congress must decide whether to accept a bipartisan compromise or side with the anti- spending activists who helped get them elected.

Democratic and Republican leaders are negotiating a proposal to slash $33 billion in 2011 spending and keep the government operating through September. Tea Party groups and some fiscal hawks in Congress say they’ll accept nothing less than the $61 billion cut passed by House Republicans in February.

Still, some first-term Republicans are starting to suggest that a compromise wouldn’t be selling out.

“There are people who will say if we get $60.9 billion it will be a failure,” Representative Bill Huizenga of Michigan said in an interview. “We need to start moving beyond that.”

Huizenga and other Republican lawmakers are eager to finish this year’s budget and begin the debate over next year. Tomorrow, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan plans to release his 2012 proposal to cut more than $4 trillion over the next decade, in part by paring Medicare and Medicaid.

“We’re going to go after the source of the problem and that is spending,” Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said yesterday on “Fox News Sunday.”

Photographer: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg

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Photographer: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg

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Government Shutdown

Ryan’s plan would overhaul the tax code, create new caps on government spending and contain no tax increases. It would convert Medicaid, which provides health care to the poor, into a block-grant program that would give governors more discretion over how to run the federal-state program.

Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Budget Committee Democrat, called Ryan’s plan the “same old ideological agenda” that would keep tax breaks for the rich and cut programs for children and senior citizens.

Before tackling the 2012 budget, Congress must agree on spending for this year or risk a government shutdown when current spending authority ends April 8.

The division among first-term Republicans over whether to accept a compromise illustrates the diversity among the 87 new party members who came to the House on an anti-spending agenda. Freshmen make up more than one-third of the 241-member House Republican caucus.

‘We’re Not a Bloc’

“Everyone thinks the freshman class is a bloc; we’re not a bloc,” said Representative Joe Walsh of Illinois, who said he won’t accept a spending cut of less than $61 billion.

Top Republicans continued to push for deeper cuts over the weekend and said little progress had been made toward an agreement.

“I really believe we should do 61 total,” Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said yesterday on ABC’s “This Week.”

House Speaker John Boehner told President Barack Obama during an April 2 phone call there was “no deal or agreement on a final number,” according to the Ohio Republican’s spokesman, Michael Steel.

Still, Boehner has begun campaigning to sell his members on a compromise.

Debt Ceiling

Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said Boehner urged members to look at the big picture during meetings last week, saying they will get more chances to cut spending in the 2012 budget and with a vote on raising the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, as early as May.

“We’ve got a few months left in this fiscal year. Let’s reduce the size of government, and let’s focus on 2012,” said Kinzinger, who ousted a Democratic congresswoman in November. “The moment the new budget comes out, that becomes the focus.”

Boehner is under pressure from spending-cut advocates to stand firm. He had to rely on Democratic support to help pass the current short-term funding measure last month because 54 Republicans refused to support it.

Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips, writing on the group’s website, urged an effort to defeat Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, in next year’s election.

“ There are currently some very specific plans by some very serious people to make sure that both Boehner and Cantor not only have primary opposition in the next election but to also make certain they lose their next primary,” Phillips wrote today.

Some Republican lawmakers who ran on promises to buck the party establishment are showing signs of deference to leadership.

‘Very United’

“I trust our conference to push for the best agreement that we can get,” said Representative Nan Hayworth of New York. “We have to move expeditiously here to solve the problems we are facing, and all of us are very united in that.”

At a Tea Party rally outside the Capitol last week, activists warned that members who don’t fulfill their promises to cut spending will pay in the next election.

“If they are not making the spending cuts that the American people want, there will probably be primaries come next year,” said Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, an organizer of the rally. “We’re not going away.”

Dozens of protesters attended the rally -- a smaller turnout than for Tea Party events last year to protest health- care overhaul. Though organizers blamed the small crowd on rainy weather, the attendance showed the challenge of keeping members engaged as lawmakers undertake the difficult task of governing.

“The Tea Party movement is young,” said Brian Darling, director of government relations for the Heritage Foundation, a Washington group that advocates limited government. “It’s still experiencing growing pains and realizing that many times when politicians tell them they believe in something it isn’t necessarily true.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Lerer in Washington at   or llerer@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva@bloomberg.net

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