Tea Party activists gather in Washington today with a clear message for the Republican majority they swept into power last fall: Hang tough, or else.
They’re rallying on the National Mall, heightening the pressure on the freshmen they helped elect and other fiscally conservative Republicans to stand firm for $61 billion in budget cuts passed by the House last month.
The push by activists who delivered the House speaker’s chair to John Boehner looms as the first major test of his clout and credibility.
Tea Party supporters are descending on the Capitol as congressional negotiators make progress on a budget deal that falls short of the cuts in the House bill. Vice President Joe Biden said last night that aides to Democratic and Republican lawmakers were working toward cuts that would total about $33 billion for the 2011 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Such an agreement would stave off a government shutdown on April 8, when current funding authority expires. It would also alarm Tea Party activists, who were promised more sweeping cuts during the 2010 campaign in which 87 new Republicans were elected to the House, ending Democratic control of the chamber.
“We made a promise,” said Representative Blake Farenthold, a freshman from Texas. “It’s going to be difficult to come off of that.”
Aides involved in the budget talks said any announcement of a firm agreement was unlikely to come until after the rally, an indication of the possible backlash feared by Republican lawmakers.
Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has sought since assuming the speakership to tamp down unrest within his ranks from those pushing for spending cuts and other measures more sweeping than the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House would accept. The House’s $61 billion spending-cut bill stemmed from objections from Tea Party-backed lawmakers over a smaller figure that Boehner’s leadership team had proposed.
Now, though, a failure by Republican leaders to compromise with Democrats could lead to a government shutdown, with uncertain political repercussions for both parties.
At the same time, too heavy a dependence on fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats to pass the legislation could cost the Republicans the support of activists who will be critical in the 2012 elections.
“He’s under pressure,” Representative Rodney Alexander, a Louisiana Republican, said of Boehner. “But I think he’s going to do what he thinks is necessary to get the votes so we can start to deal with next year’s budget.”
Democrats have sought to spotlight the divisions within the Republican House caucus. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, yesterday said House Republican leaders “can’t let the Tea Party call the shots” if they “want to move the country forward.”
Boehner praised Tea Party backers in remarks to reporters today.
“I’m glad they’re here and I’m glad that they are engaged in the process,” he said in a Capitol Hill press conference.
Evidence of the dilemma facing Boehner surfaced in a March 15 House vote on the stopgap measure funding the government through April 8. Opponents to the bill included 54 Republicans, meaning Boehner had to rely on support from Democrats to pass it.
As word spread last night of the prospect for a $33 billion spending-cut deal, reaction from Tea Party activists signaled the challenge Boehner would face selling it.
Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, urged supporters to contact and visit lawmakers’ offices to oppose any such agreement. “33 billion isn’t a cut, it is a joke,” he wrote in a blogpost on the group’s website. “America is heading down the road to insolvency” and Republicans are “doing nothing to stop it,” Phillips wrote.
Phillips also encouraged Tea Party backers to challenge Boehner for his seat during the next election. “There is no other way to put this,” he wrote. “The Tea Party movement should find a candidate to run against John Boehner in 2012 and should set as a goal, to defeat in a primary, the sitting speaker of the House of Representatives.”
Earlier in the day, Representative Martha Roby, a freshman Republican from Alabama, said “we will not settle for a split-the-baby strategy. The American people want real cuts.”
Boehner said today that Republican negotiators would continue to fight for the House-passed bill.
“There’s no agreement on the numbers and nothing will be agreed to until everything is agreed to,” he told reporters.
A series of policy provisions the House included in its budget bill remain a major hurdle to any accord. The dozens of so-called riders include blocking spending to implement the health-care overhaul and ending federal funding for Planned Parenthood, a federation of reproductive health centers that provides abortions among its services.
The Republican House leaders have said they won’t agree to an overall budget-cut figure until these issues are settled.
Tea Party activists see the negotiations as unprincipled capitulation by Republicans.
“We expected change,” said Mark Meckler, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, which organized today’s rally. “What we are seeing here is these guys are essentially at best chewing around the edges of a serious problem.”
The “continuing revolution rally” will include speeches by Representatives Steve King of Iowa, Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Jim Jordan of Ohio, and other lawmakers.
Newt Gingrich, a presumptive Republican presidential candidate, also is expected to meet with House Republican freshmen.
Tea Party groups have threatened to target any Republicans they view as not conservative enough on spending issues.
“You’ve got Tea Party-supported politicians sticking their thumb in the eye of the Tea Party, and there will be a price to pay for that,” said Brian Darling, director of government relations for the Heritage Foundation, which advocates limited government.
Still, some Tea Party-backed freshmen, particularly those from politically competitive districts, expressed some willingness to negotiate with Democrats.
Farenthold, who won his largely Hispanic district by less than 1 percentage point, said he understood the “frustration and impatience” among Tea Party activists, “but I also see the other side of it. Part of negotiation is not saying no, it’s coming up with an alternative plan.”