As the nation sweated the very real possibility that America would default on its debt, a band of the freshman congressmen blamed for the standoff gathered for a long-promised pot of seafood gumbo at the home of Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL), just a few blocks from the panicked Capitol.
These 19 Tea Party freshmen, as they’ve become known—derided as “terrorists” by Vice President Joe Biden and “bizarro” by their own Republican Party icons like John McCain—showed no remorse about bringing the nation to the brink of financial Armageddon.
Instead, they calmly traded stories about families and what brought them to politics, poked fun at their accusers, and reveled in the satisfaction of knowing they had dramatically brought Washington to its knees—eventually to accept a deal, bitter to both parties, that slices $2.4 trillion from federal spending over the next decade without any immediate tax hikes.
This ragtag band of proud obstructionists is already looking down the calendar to its next targets: blocking President Obama’s judicial and federal-agency nominations, radically restructuring Medicare and other entitlement programs, and maybe even killing the gasoline tax.
“There are some more things we want to go after—we're not done,” said Rep. Jeff Landry (R-LA), who stood in the kitchen and stirred the pot of seafood gumbo that night. Now his fellow cast of novice politicians hopes to collectively stir a pot of political fear and anger unseen in a generation or two in Washington, if ever.
Jawboned into spending concessions they could never have imagined weeks ago, the White House and Democrats are no longer underestimating the GOP’s Tea Party wing and plan to mount a relentless campaign this fall to pillory the group as extremist and hypocritical.
“It’s about destroying the public space,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told Newsweek, testing a line certain to make the fall attacks. “They did win [the debt-ceiling debate]. But they didn’t win it with the American people. They don’t believe in government roles … and we need to make sure the public knows it.”
Matt Bennett, of the Democratic group Third Way, expects Democrats to castigate the Tea Party as “reckless.”
“You can paint the entire Republican Party with the Tea Party, that these people are crazy ideologues, not fit to govern. They’re revolutionaries,” Bennett says.
Hypocrisy may also enter the equation.
For instance, while he was a constant presence on TV preaching the Tea Party’s mantra of getting America’s fiscal house in order, Illinois freshman Rep. Joe Walsh was stung by a story about his own fiscal house when the Chicago Sun-Times revealed he owes more than $100,000 in back child support.
Likewise, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), the Tea Party’s iconic figure on the presidential-campaign trail, is facing scrutiny for the gulf between her rhetoric and her record. She collected a federal salary as a lawyer representing the IRS (an agency despised by the Tea Party), owned a stake in her father-in-law’s farm that collected federal agriculture subsidies, collected tens of thousands of dollars for caring for 23 foster children, and advocated for millions of dollars in special pet projects—known as earmarks—and stimulus projects for her congressional district while portraying both forms of federal spending as wasteful.
To the intended targets of these attacks, it may not matter.
If there is one thing clear from the Tea Party caucus’ first triumph, it is that its members don’t adhere to Washington convention or care about public sentiment. The greater the criticism, the more they stiffen. Their singular focus is collapsing the size of government, at any cost.
No tactic is too extreme, no issue too small (debt-ceiling votes used to be routine before they came to Washington), and no offer of a federal project for their district or a glitzy committee assignment can lure them from the stubborn line they intend to hold against spending.
“So you’re sitting down with [Speaker] Boehner and [House Majority Leader] Cantor, and they’re offering you stuff for a vote,” Walsh, the Illinois Republican, recalls. “They can help you and do some things, you know, committee assignments and help moving up the chain.
“But whew,” he says, making a whistling sound and sweeping his hand over his head. “You’re talking beyond me. I just don’t care.”
That just-don’t-give-a-damn attitude makes this group a force to be reckoned with in Congress, even if they are left with few friends in Washington besides each other or are driven from office in just one or two terms. They plan to just go out and get more folks like them to run for Congress.
Matt Kibbe of Freedom Works, a nonprofit political group that has supported the Tea Party’s agenda, expects the movement to target 12 to 14 Senate races and aim to knock off at least two establishment Republicans in next year’s primaries in hopes of adding to the Tea Party ranks.
The reason for their already oversize leverage is simple mathematics. Between the House and Senate, there are about 100 mostly fiscally conservative Republicans loosely aligned with the Tea Party movement. The biggest bloc comes from the 87 House freshmen and a handful of bombastic first-time senators like Rand Paul of Kentucky who won seats in the 2010 elections. A few are veterans of Congress, like Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bachmann of Minnesota, who used to be marginalized until the freshman crowd arrived.
Now the Tea Party alliance in Congress is big enough to block what it wants if it can stay together.
It has literally created a new form of triangulation—a term coined by strategist Dick Morris to describe President Bill Clinton’s strategy of governing between a Republican Congress, a Democratic minority, and a Democratic-controlled White House in the 1990s.
This time the geometry of triangulation is different. Obama is hunkered in one corner with House and Senate Democrats, who are increasingly alienated by the president’s willingness to compromise with the conservative wing of the GOP. Establishment Republicans like Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell occupy the second corner with the GOP’s traditional moneyed allies like the Chamber of Commerce. And then there is the Tea Party in corner No. 3.
Though the Tea Partiers blocked Sen. Tom Coburn’s bipartisan plan for cutting the deficit, they nonetheless earned the respect of the longtime fiscal hawk for putting deficit spending front and center in a nation mostly ignorant about its consequences.
“I think they’re great for the country,” Coburn tells Newsweek and The Daily Beast. “I don’t think we could have gotten this far without them, and I hope they grow.”
Frankly, the Tea Party members had no idea how powerful they could be until the vote to raise the debt ceiling arrived and they played an unrelenting game of chicken with the full faith and credit of the United States.
They firmly believed that raising the debt ceiling would simply continue America’s addiction to borrowing and spending, so they were bent on stopping it at all cost. Most withheld their support from a half-dozen plans floated to raise the limit and trim spending, and openly stated they were willing to let America default on its debts rather than settle for spending cuts they deemed too small—even at $4 trillion over 10 years. In the end, only about half the Tea Party caucus members in the House voted for the final deal.
Now, with a victory, they’re even more emboldened. Some Tea Party freshmen are planning to forgo part of their summer vacations just to thwart Obama’s ability to slip some of his long-blocked appointees into government jobs with a tactic known as recess appointments. To do so, the lawmakers plan to take three-day shifts each in the Capitol to prevent Congress from going into formal recess.
In the fall, the group plans to band together to oppose judicial nominees it believes are too favorable to increasing the size and influence of government, creating a standoff that could strain an already understaffed court system.
The famed tax activist Grover Norquist, whose alliance with the Tea Party faithful during the debt debate helped kill off any talk of tax hikes, has already set his sights on harnessing the Tea Party for another big, and until recently unexpected, tax battle. The annual federal excise tax on gasoline—which funds road and bridge construction—is set to expire Sept. 30.
Normally its extension is automatic, but Norquist hopes to unleash the Tea Party’s fury to block its renewal, betting that the appeal of shaving the price of $4-a-gallon gas will have populist appeal. It's an idea that rarely got much traction until the Tea Party appeared.
The biggest target for the Tea Party arrives around the holidays when a special 12-member committee of Congress, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, must identify $1.5 trillion in a second round of cuts required under the just-signed debt deal.
Congress can’t tinker with the committee’s recommendations, and can only vote them up or down. If the plan doesn’t pass, draconian cuts across the government and military take effect automatically.
It’s exactly the sort of gun-to-head scenario the Tea Party relishes. And it's a good bargaining position to be in, several of the freshmen concede.
The long-term question is whether the Tea Party can morph into something bigger, or whether it is a typical flash-in-the-pan movement that taps into American rage during a prolonged recession, just as Patrick Buchanan's and Ross Perot’s short-lived movements did during the recession of the early 1990s.
"The Tea Party today is the Buchanan Brigades and the Perotistas of ’92," Buchanan told Newsweek and The Daily Beast. "They rebelled against Bush One’s raising taxes and Bush One’s New World Order. It was a nationwide rebellion, and it was still the theme in ’94.”
But those movements faded as then-president Bill Clinton managed to move the U.S. economy from recession to the Internet boom and balanced the budget to the point of generating surpluses.
For however long this crowd stays in Washington, its members don’t intend to get distracted. And that means Washington had better be prepared for another round of rowdy hostage taking this fall.