ANALYSIS: Debt fight shows tea party's influence - so far
July 30th, 2011
04:00 PM ET
3 years ago

ANALYSIS: Debt fight shows tea party's influence - so far

Washington (CNN) - As lawmakers this weekend try to reconcile the two dueling debt bills in the House and Senate, one of the strongest forces they have to reckon with is the influence of the tea party lawmakers.

Their numbers are not overwhelming – of the 435 lawmakers in the House of Representatives, only 60 are members of the tea party caucus. Still, analysts say they have wielded outsized influence on the trajectory of the debt fight so far - but are also using tactics that could risk a backlash with the public.

Their influence was clear on Thursday night, when House Speaker John Boehner had to postpone a vote on his debt-ceiling bill. On Friday, Boehner added a balanced budget amendment requirement - a provision dear to conservatives - to assure the bill passed.

Of the lawmakers who forced the change, thanks to their willingness to vote "no," more than half were members of the tea party caucus, according to an analysis by the blog fivethirtyeight.

The change in the bill means that, in whatever negotiations ensue to reconcile the Republican bill from the House and the Democratic bill in the Senate, House Republican leaders begin from a more conservative starting point.

"The tea party has forced Speaker Boehner more to the right. That involves deeper spending cuts, and also support for the balanced budget amendment," Darrell West at the Brookings Institution said. "They have had disproportionate impact on the entire congressional debate."

West says it is their unity, their determination and their inflexibility that have allowed the tea party lawmakers to punch far above their weight.

Last fall the tea party captured political lightning in a bottle and helped elect dozens of new members of Congress. They came to Washington in January on the promise to shock the political system into spending less and cutting more.

Their unwillingness to compromise has changed the debate in Washington over the way the government handles its debt.

But now even Republican Sen. John McCain - a budget hawk himself - says they risk overreaching if they are unrealistic about never compromising. In a speech on the Senate floor this week, he warned them that "to hold out and say we won't agree to raising the debt limit until we pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution - it's unfair. It's bizarro."

According to CNN senior political analyst David Gergen, tea party lawmakers may be playing with fire.

"It's one thing to be against high taxes, or against spending - but it's another thing to govern," he said. "They are now putting themselves in peril. The tea party could destroy itself, if it is not careful - if it is seen as taking us into default."

That peril might already be visible in public opinion surveys. Polling by CNN/ORC shows disapproval for the tea party has been steadily worsening, from 26% in January of last year to 47% now.

Analyst Darrell West says they may have overestimated their 2010 mandate from the voters, and taken debt-cutting far beyond what the public was looking for.

"The American public wanted a more balanced package, that even included closing tax loopholes and having higher taxes on people making over $250,000," he said.

West says many tea party lawmakers might not pay a penalty in their next elections because many come from safe districts. "But the Republican presidential nominee may end up suffering the consequences, because Obama certainly is going to tie that GOP nominee to the more extreme elements within the Republican Party in Congress."

Still, many tea party lawmakers seem to relish the fight, saying voters sent them to Washington on a mission, and come the next election, they will stand on their record. In the meantime, they say, they're more worried about reining in runaway spending than winning a popularity contest.


Filed under: Debt • Tea Party
soundoff (127 Responses)
  1. CommonCents

    The tea party will have to deal with a majority of Americans who don't share the same philosophy . Additionally, now that they have shown us and the world non-democratic behavior and political terrorism in holding all of America hostage to get their way, their influence will be challenged. Look for the other 99% of Americans to rebuke them and their fringe.

    July 31, 2011 08:47 am at 8:47 am |
  2. Gaston

    Why does CNN continue to rail against the Tea Party? Can they at least state the facts? According to the Congressional Budget Office, Reid's plan cuts $1.8 trillion over 10 years and Boehner's plan cuts $0.9 trillion over 10 years. The Tea Party wants MORE cuts (not less), that's why they vote against Boehner. If Boehner would wake up and offer more cuts, we would have had this solved a month ago!

    July 31, 2011 08:48 am at 8:48 am |
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