12.19.10

John Boehner's Tea Party Nightmare

The incoming House speaker rode a Tea Party wave into the majority, but a debt-limit vote as early as next month could cost him their backing. Benjamin Sarlin on the battle that can't come soon enough for Democrats.

Rep. John Boehner owes no small part of his imminent promotion to the speaker’s office to the Tea Party, whose support he courted early and often en route to a landslide takeover of the House. But he may lose that support before he’s even begun to wield his new power.

The movement scored one of its first major substantive victories this week, rallying Republican lawmakers against a $1.3 trillion stimulus over its inclusion of $8 billion worth of earmarks—many of which they had proposed themselves. That surprise success means the new Congress will have to work out its budget quickly upon arrival, setting up immediate fights with a White House ready to go to war to protect health-care funding and head off any spending cuts that could undermine the economic stimulus package it negotiated as part of this month’s tax compromise. Expectations will be sky high for the new majority to slash the budget, and Republicans’ relatively modest proposals in their Pledge to America may not be enough to cut it with the activist base, many of whom were critical of its limited scope.

“Tea Partiers and small-government conservatives expect to see major legislative action right away next year,” Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, said in an email. “Make no mistake, the new Congressional Freshman Class was elected to control and reduce the size and scope of government.”

The coming vote on the debt limit promises to be even more contentious. The federal government will run out of money early next year unless more borrowing is authorized, and even the most extreme budget slashing proposals out there will still means deficits for at least the medium term. A failure to pass the bill could spark a financial crisis, shut down the government, and turn big business against the GOP, making it a must-pass measure. But it’s also a bill that’s easy to demagogue, as the many Republicans who attacked incumbent Democrats for their votes on increasing the debt limit on the campaign trail discovered this year. The Republican caucus voted unanimously against the last increase in the debt ceiling, and a number have already signaled they won’t authorize another once they’re in the majority. After two years of heated rhetoric on the issue, Boehner is already warning conservatives to cool it.

“This is going to be probably the first really big adult moment for the new Republican majority,” Boehner told The New Yorker in a recent interview. “You can underline ‘adult.’ And for people who’ve never been in politics it’s going to be one of those growing moments. It’s going to be difficult, I’m certainly well aware of that. But we’ll have to find a way to help educate members and help people understand the serious problem that would exist if we didn’t do it.”

Kibbe said the House in January has to prove immediately that it is serious about spending—for example, by joining Sarah Palin in embracing Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) Social Security- and Medicare-slashing budget plan—if it wants to keep the Tea Party’s support through the vote.

“The majority party has some responsibilities, and I think they should have to confront the unreality of what they have committed themselves to,” said Rep. Barney Frank of the debt-limit fight.

“If nothing is done on the part of the newly elected members of Congress and the first major vote is raising the debt limit, that would be unacceptable,” he told The Daily Beast. “If conservatives make any kind of concessions, there will have to be proof by legislation passed that this situation is not going to happen again. A budget would have to be drafted that is substantially smaller than previous years.”

Many liberal commentators were upset with the White House for not including an increase of the debt ceiling in its tax compromise, but some Democratic lawmakers are giddy at the prospect of forcing Republicans to share responsibility for the deficit. Harry Reid said recently that he wanted the GOP to finally have a “buy-in on the debt.” Many believe Democrats will be on more favorable ground politically than during the Obama-McConnell compromise, unrestrained by the time limit of a lame duck session and able to slam Republicans as deficit hypocrites for their recent support of more than $800 billion in budget-busting tax breaks.

“You don’t want to let them off the hook; it would be a favor to the Republicans they have not earned,” Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) said of the debt-limit fight. “The majority party has some responsibilities, and I think they should have to confront the unreality of what they have committed themselves to.”

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) said Democrats should use the moment as a “leverage point” to demand concessions in exchange for their debt limit votes while Boehner squirmed to corral his own members.

“The come-to-Jesus vote in the House of Representatives is going to be the debt limit,” he said. “Right now you have people prancing around saying, ‘I’m going to cut, I’m going to cut, I’m going to cut...and I’m not going to raise the debt limit.’ OK, fine.”

Some moderate Republicans have raised the notion that the wave of incoming conservative lawmakers might move to the center in the majority.

“In almost every instance, responsibility to govern brings about change in attitude,” Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT), who lost his party’s backing in favor of a Tea Party candidate this year, told The Daily Beast in a recent interview.

And even Amy Kremer, president of the influential Tea Party Express, suggested that there may indeed be more room for compromise with the movement than some expect. “We understand that Democrats still control the White House and the Senate,” she said.

Benjamin Sarlin is the Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast and edits the site's politics blog, Beltway Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.