A significant faction of the tea party movement is prepared to revolt against any GOP deal to raise the debt ceiling – even if it is “revenue neutral” and cuts trillions from federal spending, grass-roots sources tell Newsmax.
For the most part, tea party leaders have coalesced around the “cut, cap, and balance” approach to raising the debt ceiling: Trillions in real spending cuts, a cap on how much federal spending can consume as a percent of GDP, and, ultimately, a balanced budget
amendment that would prevent the federal government from running up future deficits.
But the fractious tea party movement actually consists of thousands of loosely affiliated groups. They generally support constitutionally limited government, but don’t always agree on specific policies. And they are by no means united on whether the debt ceiling should be raised at all.
The leaders of at least one major tea party organization, Tea Party Patriots, are adamantly opposed to any deal to raise the debt ceiling, under virtually any circumstances. Doing so, they say, only invites more deficit spending.
Some analysts call such fiscal hawks “debt-ceiling absolutists.” The absolutists say Uncle Sam must go cold turkey and swear off the spending binge that has saddled America with over $14.3 trillion in national debt. But labels aside, their influence within the GOP caucus is substantial.
“It’s a hard sell for [House Speaker John] Boehner,” Ryan Ellis, director of tax policy for Americans for Tax Reform, tells Newsmax. “Because the people that he’s having trouble rounding up, and that he had trouble rounding up for the CR [continuing resolution passed in April], are people who are just inherently skeptical of Republican authority in D.C. – and for good reason.”
Although most of the major grass-roots organizations, including Tea Party Express, FreedomWorks, Grassfire.org, and others have coalesced around the cut, cap, and balance approach, it is by no means clear that they have the support of the majority of their own members when it comes to raising the debt ceiling.
A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that more than 80 percent of self-identified tea party supporters oppose raising the debt ceiling. Even Democrats only favored increasing the debt ceiling by 49 percent to 45 percent. Independents also opposed increasing the debt ceiling, by a whopping 71 percent to 24 percent margin.
Several such polls suggest the Republican leadership has failed to win the confidence of its grass-roots conservative base. In fact, several recent GOP moves have probably eroded the tea parties’ trust in the GOP leadership.
The “secret” powwow held Sunday between Boehner and President Barack Obama administration, as reported by The New York Times, has left some tea party leaders more skeptical that the ultimate deal will be palatable.
“Somehow super-secret, double-secret handshake meetings in back rooms on the weekend when nobody’s watching don’t seem to me to meet any standard of transparency for any human being that I’ve ever met,” Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler tells Newsmax.
“Why aren’t these negotiations open to the American public?” demanded Meckler, who is always careful to stipulate that he doesn’t speak for all of his members. “Why are we not allowed to know how, and for what, they’re trading away our children’s future?”
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel tells Newsmax, “The speaker has made it clear that the American people will not tolerate – and the House will not pass – a debt-limit increase without spending cuts greater than the increase, and reforms that will bring down future spending. The only thing off the table is tax hikes, because tax hikes destroy jobs.”
The Republican Party’s relationship with its tea party base took another hit Wednesday when GOP Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Arizona, stated Republicans had put some $200 billion in new revenues on the table, in a good-faith effort to work out a deal with the White House.
Although Kyl said those revenues would be gathered through land sales and increased fees rather than higher taxes, his statement has triggered substantial angst on the right.
Ryan Hecker, the tea party leader who created the Contract From America document that served as the tea party’s manifesto in the 2010 midterms, blasted Kyl Thursday in an e-mail to Newsmax.
“I am dismayed that Republicans like Kyl continue to use doublespeak in an attempt to once again trick and fleece the American people,” Hecker wrote. “Calls to implement ‘user fees’ and close ‘tax loopholes’ are simply sly ways of calling for tax increases,” he added.
The escalating discontent on the right comes in the context of the April deal brokered by Obama and Boehner. ATR’s Ellis tells Newsmax that tea party members feel they “got played” in the continuing resolution negotiation.
Initially, the deal purported to shave $38 billion from federal spending. But a subsequent CBO analysis found it actually cut just $352 million for current-year spending. Then came the killer: When emergency military spending was included, the CBO found that federal spending would actually increase $3.3 billion above last year’s level.
Although Boehner’s staff defended the future savings that the compromise is projected to bring, it now appears the deal in April may make it much more difficult politically to get grass-roots buy-in on a grand bargain to elevate the debt ceiling. It proved so controversial that 59 House Republicans broke ranks and voted against the deal.
This time, some observers warn, the defections could be even worse. If Boehner has to rely heavily on Democratic votes to pass a debt-ceiling compromise, it could weaken his standing within his own caucus.
Some tea party members, meanwhile, complain that the Republican Party seems to have forgotten the lesson of the 2010 midterms.
“It astounds me that Republican leadership continues to operate under the assumption that they won back the House in 2010 because of their good looks and wonderful personalities,” Hecker stated.
“They won because they preached economic conservatism and no tax hikes. They were given a mandate, and yet they continue to operate from a defensive position. This failure of real leadership is why Republicans lost Congress and the presidency in the first place,” he added.
FreedomWorks chief Matt Kibbe has a more nuanced view. As much as he would prefer a more fundamental change in federal governance, he says, the GOP, with control of only one chamber of Congress, just doesn’t have the power it needs to impose its will. That’s why his organization is pushing for the more pragmatic cut, cap, and balance approach.
“The burden on Republicans is that they have to be bold because they don’t have credibility,” says Kibbe. “We don’t trust them to cut a good deal, so they have to stand firm.
“I think the impact of the tea party has been profound in this sense,” he adds. “We’re getting trashed by everyone from David Brooks of The New York Times, to Democrats, for not allowing Republicans to negotiate in good faith.
“Well, this is a spending problem. If you want to fix a spending problem, you’ve got to cut spending. If you want to talk about revenue to fix a spending problem you’re just changing the topic.”
ATR’s Ellis tells Newsmax that every tea party member he’s spoken with is “extremely skeptical” about the wisdom of raising the debt ceiling. To pass muster with the grass, he says, a deal at a minimum must:
- Offer real cuts, not ones depending on elaborate accounting formulas involving spending projections and presumed rates of employment that extend beyond a five-year horizon. Both Meckler and Everett Wilkinson, the head of the Florida tea party, tell Newsmax that they simply don’t trust what they call the federal government’s “Enron accounting.”
- Be front-loaded with cuts. That means immediate spending reductions mostly occurring within the next few years. Putting off cuts until long after current members of Congress have left Washington just won’t fly. “Of course Obama wants to punt it, to get it off the table until the next election,” says Wilkinson. “And I think largely the Republicans would like to do the same thing. Because I don’t think D.C. understands that the American people have had enough, and they want real cuts.”
- Offer enforceable, hard caps on future spending. Once spending exceeds a certain portion of the Gross Domestic Product – perhaps 18.5 percent, compared to the current level of nearly 24 percent – cuts in spending would have to automatically ensue, activists say.
“They want a down payment,” Ellis explains. “They want a significant sign of good faith, and a down payment that these spending cuts are real, and they’re going to be enforceable going forward.”
Of course, there is no guarantee that Democrats would go along with the tea party’s bottom line. But this much is clear: The prospect is very real that any Republican politician who supports a deal unpopular with the GOP’s grass-roots base will pay dearly for it at the polls.
“I think you will see primary challenges to people who might otherwise pose themselves as conservatives based upon these votes,” Meckler told Newsmax, clearly firing a shot across the bow of GOP members.
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