Tea Party, Republican New Class to Challenge Establishment in Congress?

The GOP’s post-election honeymoon is over, as hordes of new revolutionaries arrive in D.C. determined to hold the establishment’s feet to the fire. Benjamin Sarlin previews the clashes to come.

South Dakota's Kristi Noem, and David Rivera and Allen West, both of Florida. (AP Photo)

Like the proverbial dog that finally caught the car, dozens of Republican freshmen must now figure out what to do with the same Congress they spent the last two years condemning in ads, speeches, and interviews as a putrid swamp of waste and corruption. This week the huge new group of lawmakers, more than 85 strong, arrived in the Capitol for their orientation, collecting tips and history from the party’s old guard even as many of their rising stars warned the establishment that they won’t stay quiet.

South Dakota’s Kristi Noem, who along with Rep.-elect Tim Scott (R-SC) is competing for a new freshman leadership position, made it clear to reporters that the new members would have their own defiant identity, touting herself as “somebody willing to put their foot down and draw a line in the sand when it’s important for the freshman class.”

Allen West, a Tea Party favorite from Florida, also warned leaders that his vote was hardly guaranteed.

“Sometimes maybe I will do some of the things that the Republican Party establishment up here may not want, but I think that’s what the folks in my district sent me up here to do,” he said.

Billy Long, who won an open seat in Missouri, said the hope was that the leadership would acknowledge the new members’ size and influence with some plum committee assignments right out of the gate. According to Long, who told reporters he was part of the Tea Party “before the Tea Party was cool,” the new members would distinguish themselves from their predecessors and make their mark early.

“This is a huge class and I think the American people have spoken,” he said. “If we keep doing things the way things have been done in Washington, how can we expect anything different?”

The class collected an early victory over the entrenched leadership Monday as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gave in to demands to ban earmarks, a top cause for many new members, after initially opposing the plan.

Steve Womack, who was elected in Arkansas’ 3rd District this month, said freshman were well aware that many of their orientation hosts “allowed certain spending habits to get out of control” under President Bush.

“I think you’re on the lookout for any potential conflict between the veteran members of Congress, particularly those that have been there a while,” he said. “I said this on my campaign and I know a number of my colleagues did: We all are to blame for what we’re facing economically today. It’s not limited to just one side of the aisle.”

“The enthusiasm, the mind-set, the philosophy of this class is very similar to the [1994] class, and for a while the old class did get it right. Then we went off the rails.”

Some freshmen have a foot in both camps, arriving in D.C. after winning seats they had previously lost. Steve Chabot, who regained his Ohio seat this year after being ousted in 2008, was first elected in the 1994 Republican Revolution and warned that the party couldn’t let history repeat itself.

“The enthusiasm, the mind-set, the philosophy of this class is very similar to the [1994] class, and for a while the old class did get it right,” Chabot said. “Then we went off the rails.”

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New members tempered their tough talk with optimism that GOP veterans have reformed their wicked ways.

“The fact we’re discussing history and what happened the last time is very important, because it shows we’ve gone through a process of trying to learn from some mistakes,” Noem said.

At times the optimism bordered on naivete, suggesting possible conflicts down the road. David Rivera, who won an open seat in Miami, said it was “an unfathomable prospect” that leadership would shrink from its small-government mandate. But he added that one of his top priorities in the next Congress is to stop legislation increasing the nation’s debt ceiling, a bill that top Republicans are all but certain to endorse eventually, given that a failure to pass it would trigger a financial meltdown. Another top priority for Rivera, extending all of Bush’s tax cuts, may end in a compromise as well, but he said he was not backing down on either cause.

“It is going to be very difficult, I would say next to impossible, to change my opinion on any of these issues,” he told The Daily Beast.

Looming in the background of the freshman arrival is the Tea Party movement, which ousted a number of longtime incumbents this election cycle that it accused of straying too far from core small-government principles. Tea Party organizers are aggressively warning their favored candidates to remember who got them elected, holding a number of unofficial orientations to teach new members how not to be co-opted by the establishment. But leaders of the Tea Party Patriots irked a number of freshmen after they posted dozens of personal email addresses and phone numbers of new members and urged activists to tell them attend their orientation instead of one held by a rival group. Rep.-elect Long said he received 167 emails and a voicemail box full of messages demanding he stick to the Patriots’ event even though he had already pledged to attend it.

“I wasn’t too happy about that,” he said. “I think they might have lost some credibility.”

Keeping the heat on the new members, Tea Party protesters gathered on the lawn outside Congress on Monday to protest the lame-duck session at an event organized by Americans for Prosperity. Frank Giunta, who defeated Carol Shea-Porter in New Hampshire, cautioned an elderly woman at the event that change would take more than two years and received an earful of Thomas Jefferson quotes in return.

“I’m going to hold him accountable,” the woman said.

Jerry Hyde, 68, who came up from Greensboro, North Carolina, to protest, said he was concerned by past failures to keep conservative lawmakers in line on spending and states’ rights issues.

“We need to hold their feet to the fire, but support them when they do right,” he said. “I’m hoping they have a better value system than in the past.”

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.