'World News' Political Insights: Tea Party Will Test GOP Unity

Leadership plans to accommodate members who delivered Republican majority.

Nov. 07, 2010 — -- They came via a party. But this crowd doesn't care for the Washington dance.

Their majority in the House of Representatives secured, Republican leaders are now turning to the tricky task of corralling a class of brash Washington newcomers for whom Capitol Hill's traditions and niceties mean little.

Of a House Republican freshman class that will boast at least 84 members, roughly half consider themselves tea partiers. Tea party Senate candidates fared less well, but new senators from states including Kentucky, Utah and Florida owe their elections at least in part to tea party energy.

Toss in a few dozen congressional veterans who have embraced tea partiers, and that means a sizeable enough chunk of votes that the new GOP leadership needs to take their sentiments seriously.

Top Republican leaders know they wouldn't have the majority without the new members, and have spent the days since the election making sure the tea partiers' views will be accommodated in the new Congress.

GOP insiders say the new leaders are likely to support the concept of someone with credibility among tea partiers -- either a new member or a veteran who has embraced the movement -- to join the leadership team.

But that person is not likely to be Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who has announced a run for Republican Conference Chair against Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.

Though tea partiers don't speak with one voice -- virtually by definition -- the new crop of members of Congress rode surges of anti-government anger into office.

Many pledged to oppose additional debt, enact deep cuts in government services, and oppose special projects inserted into spending bills as earmarks.

One of the most prominent new tea partiers to win last week, Senator-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky, is serving notice that he will seek to cut even those areas of government that Republicans consider sacred. He said on ABC's "This Week" that the military budget should be among the areas targeted for cuts.

"We're coming," Paul said of the tea party movement. "We're proud. We're strong. We're loud."

Republicans will face an early test of party unity in the spring, with a looming vote to raise the debt limit -- something many tea partiers oppose, even though a failure to pass such a measure would cause certain chaos in global markets and grind government functions to a halt.

Other areas that could come up even sooner -- such as possible compromises on extending the Bush-era tax cuts and proposals to ban earmarks -- could pit tea partiers against veteran members who are more inclined to take more pragmatic stands in an era of divided governance.

Republican leaders rightly point out that the new crop of members aren't strangers to them, personally or politically. Top members of the GOP leadership campaigned for many of them and encouraged some of them to run; they have reached out to all of them in the days since election day.

The presumptive House speaker, John Boehner, is signaling that the new crop will feel welcome in Washington.

"Most of them are the most normal, everyday people you've ever met. None of them have ever been involved in the political process before," Boehner, R-Ohio, told ABC News' Diane Sawyer on Thursday. "I think we as Americans ought to welcome that participation. I think it's going to reinvigorate our democracy. And be a really good thing for the country."

At the same time, Boehner made clear that Congress won't hold up an increase on the debt limit, though he said he will fight to see spending cuts before such a vote is held.

"We'll be ready to meet our obligations," Boehner said.

Boehner himself comes at the job as someone who, as a member of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's leadership team in 1995, saw first-hand the growing pains associated with a big crop of newcomers. Fifteen of the 74 freshman Republicans elected in 1994 did not win re-election just two years later.

Boehner, though a 20-year House veteran, first embraced tea party energy last March, just as it began to spread nationwide. He spoke at a series of tea party events, primarily in Washington and in his home state of Ohio, and met privately with several of the movement's leaders relatively early on.

Boehner's task will be to corral the fresh energy without seeing it turn against Republicans, as happened with some regularity during this year's primary season.

The White House, meanwhile, will be seeking out areas where it can divide Republicans against themselves, particularly in areas impacting the deficit and national debt.

Tea party activists have been explicit in saying they consider the new members to be "on probation." Their threat -- to harness the same energy that swept new members into office right back out if they stray from their promises -- doubles as the challenge confronting Boehner and his team.