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04.07.11

The Tea Party's Budget Freakout

Grassroots activists in the organization are losing patience with GOP leaders over the budget battle—and Patricia Murphy reports that not even John Boehner is immune to their wrath.

As Democrats and Republicans struggled to gain the upper hand in this week’s bitter budget battle, Harry Reid accused the Republicans of being ruled by “Tea Party extremists”—and John Boehner, in his own way, agreed. The House speaker said flatly that there is no daylight between him and the grassroots movement's budget-hawk activists.

But Tea Party members from Boehner's own district insisted that they are nobody's tools in the budget showdown that has paralyzed Washington and threatens to shut down the federal government.

To prove their point, the Tea Party members from Boehner's home turf in Ohio fired off a letter late Thursday, warning him to hold the line on government spending, especially on the looming clash over raising the federal debt ceiling. One leader went so far as to warn that the locals would not rule out mounting a primary challenge to the speaker if he doesn't show more fight than he has so far. "At this point I don't think it's off the table," said Dan Lillback of the Cincinnati Tea Party, which is based in Boehner's district.

Although Tea Party activists in Cincinnati have regular access to Boehner's staff, Lillback and other members of the group recently took the unusual step of launching robocalls to Boehner's top 1,000 donors, urging them to contact him about the upcoming debt-ceiling issue.

"I think they kind of see us as kind of a fly buzzing around their ear right now because we're not doing anything to truly impact them," Lillback said of the GOP leaders. "But at the end of 2012, when Election Day happens, is the debt ceiling going to be $16 trillion? $17 trillion? When is it going to be less than it is today? That's not an answer that we're going to like."

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Ann Becker, a stay-at-home mom and vice president of the West Chester Tea Party that meets about three times a month with Boehner's staff, said she respects the speaker but "we want leadership, we don't really want a politician right now."

A short distance from West Chester, Ray Warrick of the Mason Tea Party said that he and other Republicans in Ohio are "not happy" with Boehner and the party’s leadership for what they see as Republicans failing to live up to their campaign promises to drastically cut the budget. "I think that some of us are beyond patience," he said. "Whereas it used to feel hopeless, sometimes now it seems pointless."

"If you don't have the political will to cut $61 billion, then what are you doing there? Get out of Congress."

While local Tea Party leaders aired their frustration with Boehner, others across the country pinned the blame for the ballooning federal deficit on Democratic leaders in Washington.

"Harry Reid says we're being unreasonable, but he wants to keep cowboy poetry alive," said Jamie Radtke, a former chair of the Virginia Tea Party Patriot Federation who is now running for the state’s open Senate seat. He was ridiculing the Senate majority leader for defending the poetry festival in Nevada, which is financed in part with federal dollars.

But Radtke doesn’t let Republicans off the hook either, saying that any more compromises from the GOP leadership, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, on the 2011 budget will trigger a backlash from the Tea Party. "If you don't have the political will to cut $61 billion, then what are you doing there? Get out of Congress," she said.

While the national media are focused on the possible government shutdown this weekend, Chris Littleton of the Ohio Liberty Council called the battle "the pre-game show" for the real spending wars over the 2012 budget. "We're arguing over crumbs falling off the table at this point," Littleton said, adding that their message to both parties is to tackle the country's spiraling debt—which he likened to a black hole. "Stop yelling. Play nice in the sandbox. The world is on fire," he said.

With anger in the heartland clearly on the rise, it has fallen to national spokesmen to counsel something that is in short supply among the local activists: patience.

Adam Brandon of FreedomWorks, the national Tea Party-affiliated organization, urged local groups to give the GOP leadership time to see the battle through to the end. He also called the notion of a primary challenge to Boehner a distraction from the real fight. "Give them time to work it out instead of setting up primary challenges," he said. "There's a lot of Congress left in this Congress."

Patricia Murphy is a writer in Washington, D.C., where she covers Congress and politics.