Budget Showdown: Will Tea Party Pressure Add to Stalemate?

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Days away from a potential government shutdown, the Republican leadership is facing increasing pressure from the Tea Party that threatens to disrupt negotiations on the federal budget.

Republicans are struggling to meld policy with the demands of the Tea Party movement, which played a critical role in propelling the GOP back into power in the House. Across the country, in town halls and conferences, Tea Party members say they want to see more action, not excuses, from federal lawmakers in slashing spending and the budget deficit.

Tea Party leaders argue that the cuts proposed by Republicans, both in the continuing resolution for 2011 and beyond, don't go far enough. And even though the Republican leadership has said it will try to avoid a shutdown, supporters of the conservative movement insist they shouldn't cave and if a shutdown is a way to prove a point, then so be it.

"The problem is if your goal is cutting spending and cutting the size of the deficit now, it's difficult to see how you don't end up with a potential government shutdown scenario," said Matt Kibbe, president and chief executive of FreedomWorks, an umbrella organization for Tea Party groups. "You can't simply kick the can down the road, and the Senate Democrats didn't offer a single specific suggestion on savings for the continuing resolution, and it strikes me that that's unacceptable."

"It would be worse for Republicans if the way they got to not getting to a shutdown was by throwing away their goals of reining in federal spending," he added.

Even Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., founder of the Senate Tea Party caucus and the movement's lead supporters, told ABC News last month that he didn't believe his party is doing enough to cut government spending.

"I don't think they realize the enormity of the problem," he said.

Libertarian Party Chairman Mark Hinkle has called the cuts a betrayal to Tea Partiers.

"These cuts are so small, you need a microscope to find them," Hinkle said when the budget proposal was first released by the GOP. "I think the Tea Party supporters were expecting real cuts, not this nonsense."

Republican lawmakers, however, downplayed the idea of a division, saying that the Tea Party -- increasingly anxious to see quick results -- is still trying to find its voice.

"I don't think it's an us versus them," said Joe Barton, R-Texas, a member of the House Tea Party caucus. "I think it's more I guess kind of your second marriage where you trying to meld the two different families into one family. You share the same vision. It's just each side's been used to doing it their way and they got to figure out a way where they work together."

But Barton acknowledged there's a difference between rhetoric and policy that some Tea Party members may not fully comprehend.

"I think they're trying to feel their way how to have a relationship with the majority in the House and impact the situation in the Senate without actually being a part of the Republican party," Barton added. "If you want to make policy, you're going to have to work with people like myself who share your vision but are in a position to do something about it."

The Republican leadership has already given in to Tea Party demands. Under pressure from freshman members of Congress who said Republicans' original budget proposal fell short of their campaign promise, the House leadership slashed another $26 billion from their original draft, bringing the total reduction to $100 billion, closer to the campaign pledge in 2010.

Tea Party Warns GOP of Price to Pay

The pressure from the Tea Party poses a unique challenge for the Republican leadership.

On the one hand, they have to heed the demands of Tea Party-supporting freshman lawmakers who insist they came to Washington on a mandate to cut spending and rein in the deficit. On the other hand, such pressure could pose a challenge in negotiating with Democrats and President Obama, who has already threatened to veto the continuing resolution passed by the House that would fund the government until October.

"We came into Congress with a mandate from the people that we represent and I think the cross section of America, everybody is saying we have a spending problem," said Rich Nugent, R-Fla., a freshman congressman who has called for deeper cuts than what Republicans initially proposed.

"America has a spending problem. Until we get that under control, America's at risk. I hear that consistently from people, whether they're Republicans or Democrats," he added. "We have got to get our house in order. We have got to cut spending."

The Tea Party has already cemented its role in state politics. In Florida, newly minted Gov. Rick Scott met with the movement's local leaders early last month to roll out his budget plan.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose campaign was heavily bankrolled by Tea Party groups and their supporters, is embroiled in a bitter battle with unions and state workers. The impasse has virtually shut down the state government but neither Walker nor conservatives are budging in their demands that unions' rights be curbed.

A federal government shutdown, however, is a different story. The partial government shutdown of 1996 was hugely unpopular, with Republicans taking most of the blame. A new Washington Post poll found that Americans would find both parties equally culpable if the government were to shutter.

And while rhetoric is easy, many people argue that Americans, for the most part, don't want the kind of cuts that Republicans are proposing, especially if it affects their own well-being and daily lives.

The GOP's proposed spending cuts would be a drag on the economy and slash economic growth by about 2 percent of Gross Domestic Product, according to a confidential report prepared by Goldman Sachs for its clients.

But Tea Party leaders are vowing to hold lawmakers accountable. They warn that the consequences for Republicans could be worse if they don't heed their demands.

"I think Republicans need to sort of own the courage of their convictions," Kibbe of FreedomWorks said. "I think there is a price to be paid politically for not being bold. You have this massive community of Tea Partiers, primarily independents, who are interested in policy, not political affiliation."

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