The tea party rebels preparing to storm across the Potomac and into the marbled halls of Congress are already flexing their muscles, circulating petitions, and shooting off letters advising members of Congress how to vote in an early test of their newfound Beltway influence following Tuesday's historic elections.
Much of the activism centers around grass-roots support for Minnesota GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann, who is challenging Texas GOP Rep. Jeb Hensarling for the chairmanship of the House Republican Conference, the No. 4 position in the House leadership.
Both candidates are considered tea party favorites. But Hensarling is the clear preference of the GOP establishment, which at times has appeared leery of the tea parties' growing might.
Movement conservative Richard Viguerie began circulating a petition on Monday urging GOP leaders to remain neutral in the leadership struggle between Hensarling and Bachmann. GOP Whip Eric Cantor recently endorsed Hensarling.
"Rep. Hensarling and Rep. Bachmann are both good, constitutional conservatives and they both deserve to openly compete to chair the House Republican Conference without your interference," states the petition posted on Viguerie's website, ConservativeHQ.com.
"I urge you to withdraw your endorsement of Rep. Hensarling for the House Republican Conference and allow Rep. Bachmann [or anyone else who wishes to join the race) a fair and open election process that equally respects the voice of each Republican House member."
Viguerie told Newsmax in an e-mail: "Yes, I think it's important that Michele Bachmann be elected as the House Republican Conference Chair. All other leadership positions, including committee chairs, are controlled by [presumptive House Speaker] John Boehner and Eric Cantor — men associated with the big-government Republicans that so angered the GOP's base and most of America.
"The Republican congressional leaders need to send a message that they are open under new management," he wrote. "Unfortunately, while Congressman Jeb Hensarling is a good conservative, his close association with the old guard Republican failed leadership sends the wrong message to tea partiers."
Major tea party organizations such as Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Express say they are staying out of the power struggle between the two grass-roots conservative leaders. But many say privately that their loyalty lies with Bachmann.
Tea Party Express founder Sal Russo tells Newsmax his group considers Hensarling a friend. "Obviously, we have a greater kinship with people like Michele Bachmann and [South Carolina Sen.] Jim DeMint, who were willing to lead on tea party issues long before it became popular. So they have a special place in our hearts."
The grass-roots involvement in the leadership battle over the House conference post is just one of a growing number of indications that the same conservative fervor that shook up the Democratic Party last week also will be a force in Congress in the weeks and months ahead.
On Thursday, for example, the FreedomWorks organization that nurtured the movement through its early growing pains circulated a seven-page letter addressed to "Members-Elect of the Next Congress" which offered the elected officials of the 112th Congress what it called "unsolicited advice."
The letter, jointly written by former Majority Leader Dick Armey, chairman of FreedomWorks, and Matt Kibbe, the organization's president and CEO, appears to address both Republicans and Democrats. It proclaims the new Congress "will have a clear mandate from the American people to defund, repeal, and replace the healthcare reform law."
In support of that assertion, the letter notes that at least 67 of the Nov. 2 winners had signed the 10-point Contract From America platform, which called for restoring federal governance to its constitutional limits, balancing the budget, and reversing the spiraling accumulation of federal debt.
The FreedomWorks leaders also cite a recent poll showing 54 percent of voters support "defunding, repealing, and replacing Obamacare."
The correspondence could be seen as politically intimidating. Armey and Kibbe point out that all five of the House Democrats who switched from "no" to "yes" on healthcare at the last minute lost their jobs last week. And two others who retired were succeeded by a Republican.
The letter states in boldface that repeal of the president's healthcare reforms "isn't negotiable," and concludes with a blunt appeal to incoming Republicans: "Your mandate is clear. Having won control of the House and a blocking minority in the Senate — largely because a majority of voters reject the Democrats' takeover of health care — your political ships have, as it were, been burned behind you.
"Politically speaking, your only choice is to get on offense and start moving boldly ahead to repeal, replace, and defund Obamacare in 2011, or risk rejection by the voters in 2012."
Sources tell Newsmax that tea party leaders also are planning an "accountability plan" to ensure that politicians elected on a small-government platform follow through on their pledges.
Conservatives noted that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell refused during a "Face the Nation" appearance to commit to supporting legislation that would ban earmarks. McConnell said he would be "willing to consider it" but complained that banning earmarks "doesn't save any money."
The key for movement conservatives, Russo says, will be to follow the same maxim President Ronald Reagan followed with regard to nuclear disarmament: "Trust, but verify."
"Reagan had his saying that I used to always like which is, 'If you can't make them see the light, we'll make them feel the heat,' Russo tells Newsmax. "Well, [our] job is to make them feel the heat.
"We're going to leave it to Heritage [Foundation] and [Wisconsin GOP Rep.] Paul Ryan, and some of the thoughtful members in Washington, to keep showing the light of what we ought to be doing. We're going to focus on putting the heat behind those who don't seem to get it."
Russo says movement conservatives have had run-ins with GOP leaders that indicate "they're not 100 percent" onboard with the tea party's values.
At the same time, Russo is taking pains to make it clear that grass-roots conservatives don't want to push Republicans into taking politically unviable steps that hand a political advantage to their opponents.
"I would say we're not uncompromising in a lot of ways . . . you've got to give some room for tactics and methods. In Congress, you sometimes do one thing to accomplish something else.
"I don't think the tea party people are unreasonable. But they do want a final result," Russo says. "Do you have to sometimes zig and zag to get what you want? Sure. That's all part of what the process is like. We're not unmindful of that . . . [But] this election was a major statement, that the public does not want this growing intrusive government that President Obama and the Democratic Congress have foisted upon us."
Russo says any GOP waffling on repealing healthcare reform would cause the base to rise up in protest. But he expressed confidence that GOP leaders have heard the voters loud and clear.
"I don't think we're going to see a repeat of the Republican Congress that we had that spent feverishly. I think they've learned that lesson, that that's not where this country is. They got caught up in the perks of power and lost sight of what the goals are," he says.
"That's why people dropped out, why we took a bath in '06 and '08. But the tea party movement became the vehicle by which those disaffected people could get back in the political process, and they did in a big way in 2010. So to ignore that would be so foolish, it's hard to believe that too many Republican leaders would be that foolish — some probably, but not too many."
Bachmann tells Newsmax, "It will be up to the House leadership to demonstrate that they've heard what the tea party is trying to tell them."
She adds that the tea party and establishment Republicans must work together in order to accomplish the key objectives of extending all the Bush tax cuts and rolling back the president's healthcare reforms.
"Well that is the objective now going forward," Bachmann tells Newsmax. "And we need to make sure that we have unity. That's the No. 1 issue going forward.
"We have to unify the House Republicans. I think that we will do that. People were skeptical that the tea party would unify with the Republicans in this election. They did. They did not form a third party.
"Now it will be up to the Republicans to make sure that they deliver on what the tea party has demanded."
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