Leaders of a nationwide tea party group say they are heartened by early steps the new Republican majority has taken in the House, but they remain concerned that GOP leaders could walk away from campaign promises when it comes to cutting spending and reducing the national debt.
The battle lines over federal spending and the role of government are likely to come into much sharper focus Tuesday night when President Obama travels to Capitol Hill to deliver his State of the Union address and new House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin delivers the Republican response.
Tea party leaders, who helped propel the GOP to big gains in November, said Monday they will be listening closely.
Mark Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin, co-founders of the Tea Party Patriots, told The Washington Times they're pleased Republicans kicked off the congressional session by reading the Constitution on the House floor and that they muscled through a measure to repeal the president's overhaul of the health care system. Although the group generally steers clear of social issues, Mr. Meckler said, the Republican-backed move to curb taxpayer funding for abortions is positive because it should also save money.
"So far, so good," Mr. Meckler said.
But the tea party activists cautioned that there is still plenty of time for Republican lawmakers to renege on campaign pledges that helped propel them into power in the House and to pick up additional seats in the Senate.
"It looks like they are serious about cutting the budget, but we will have to wait and see what proposals are actually put on the table, and we intend to keep the pressure on them to make serious budget cuts," he said.
Mr. Meckler noted that there is a "long history of disappointment when politicians promise they are going to cut spending."
Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican and a founder of the House Tea Party Caucus, plans to give her own response to Mr. Obama's speech on the Tea Party Express website, and some members of the grass-roots movement are more interested in hearing what she has to say than the official party designate.
Asked Monday about Mrs. Bachmann's plan, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, assured reporters that "Paul Ryan is giving the official Republican response" and that "Michelle Bachmann, just as the other 534 members of the House and Senate, [is] going to have opinions as to the State of the Union."
Whatever the case, the speeches present Mr. Obama and Republicans with an opportunity to advertise to voters their sincerity in getting the nation's fiscal house in order and getting Americans back to work.
On Monday, House Republicans paved the way to allow Mr. Ryan to set budget targets for the fiscal year 2011 spending bill, already four months overdue.
In a symbolic move, Republicans began the week with a debate on a procedural vote on a resolution to limit spending, cutting many non-defense government programs for the second half of the current fiscal year back to 2008 levels.
The measure isn't binding, but could provide a difficult political vote for Democrats who fail to support the resolution.
"The time to exercise our power of the purse with discipline and restraint is long overdue," said Rep. David Dreier, a California Republican who chairs the House Rules Committee. "We must return to pre-bailout, pre-binge levels of funding for the federal government."
Democrats, who controlled the chamber until this month, failed to pass any of the spending bills and failed to agree on an overall budget target. Instead, they approved a stopgap spending bill to keep the government funded through March 4 and pushed the responsibility of carving out a new budget into the laps of the incoming Congress.
Since then, GOP leaders have said the federal debt limit must be increased to avoid a government default and have walked back from their pledge to cut $100 billion immediately in spending. They argue that such a cut would simply be too much so late in the fiscal year.
Those moves have fiscal hawks in the tea party movement worried.
"It is a concern for us, and we want to see cuts much more dramatic than that," Ms. Martin said. "We think the $100 billion that was promised and was pledged is a good start, and we want them to make every single effort they can to cut at least that much this year."
On Monday, members of the conservative Republican Study Committee stepped up the pressure on GOP leaders to live up to their campaign pledge.
"In order to regain the trust and confidence of the American public, it's imperative that we live up to the promise we made in the 'Pledge to America' to cut $100 billion in spending by returning to 2008 spending levels," said Rep. Scott Garrett, New Jersey Republican. "These cuts represent the first step, not the last, toward addressing the looming debt crisis facing our country."
Last week, the Republican Study Committee rolled out the Spending Reduction Act of 2011 that it said would reduce federal spending by $2.5 trillion over 10 years. Under the plan, non-security discretionary spending in 2011 would be returned to 2008 levels and be further reduced to 2006 levels in the subsequent nine years. The group also sent a letter to House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, urging him to "keep our $100 billion pledge to the American people."
The cuts "represent a credible down payment on the fiscally responsible measures that will be needed to get the nation's finances back on track," the letter read. "With this historic opportunity to cut spending and grow our economy, it is critical that our conference, at a minimum, meet the original $100 billion savings goal."
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