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What’s next for the Tea Party?

They don’t have a national structure.  They don’t have a campaign organization and they don’t have a massive political action committee fund.  They don’t even have a Washington Office.  And no one person is their spokesman.  But almost miraculously they had a profound impact on the outcome of the last election.  While the Republicans were viewed as the winners on election night, the biggest winner, by far, was the Tea Party.  At least two thirds of the new House membership ascribes to a Tea Party philosophy and so do a number of the newly elected Senators.  Now, the question, after such success, is where to from here?


The first thing the Tea Party followers are going to be watching is the performance of the new congressmen and senators they backed for office in 2010.  One of the key issues for the Tea Party is government spending.  They are desperately concerned about the size of government, the national debt and the scope and scale of the annual budget.  What they will be watching is how their newly elected members vote on spending bills.  In fact, one of the most important votes on spending is just around the corner.
Shortly the Congress is going to have to vote on raising the nation’s debt ceiling.  We’re very close to breaking the limit (which is currently $14.3 Trillion) and the Congress is going to be asked to increase it.  To no one’s surprise, the President and the Democrats support an increase in the debt ceiling.  That’s to be expected.  But the situation for the Republicans is a little more complicated.  The GOP leadership in both the House and Senate is nervous about this issue.  Many would prefer to make a deal with the President.  They’re afraid that an impasse over the debt limit has the potential to significantly disrupt the functioning of the government.  And they’re afraid a shutdown would backfire on them politically. However, the Tea Party backers, at least for the most part, don’t care about that.  They oppose increasing the ceiling and they support this kind of confrontation.  The question now is will the candidates they backed in the election hold the line on this issue or will they give in?  
In all likelihood there will be some kind of compromise.  If that compromise, in addition to raising the debt limit includes a firm commitment for future spending cuts, then that might be enough to satisfy the Tea Party base.  But whether that would be enough is still an open question.  In all likelihood, the way Republican members vote on the debt ceiling will be an issue in the 2012 Republican primaries.
In addition to the debt ceiling there is also the budget for what’s left of 2011 and for 2012.  The Tea Party backers at home are going to be watching these votes too.  If the members they supported look like they gave in, and backed higher spending levels, there might be a price to pay during the next primary election cycle.  At the very least the Tea Party followers in the Congressional districts and states want to see their members put up a good fight when it comes to spending cuts.
Nationally, the Tea Party is going to play a major role in choosing the Republican nominee for President in 2012.  Almost every prospective candidate for the GOP nod, from Mitt Romney to Haley Barbour and Tim Pawlenty has been trying to align themselves with the Tea Party.  For some this is an easier sell than others.  Sarah Palin didn’t have much trouble in making a connection with the Tea Party.  On the other hand, Mitt Romney, whose Massachusetts Health Care plan bears a striking resemblance to President Obama’s plan, has had a tougher time.  But all the prospective nominees know that in the current climate that in addition to the traditional Republican base they’re going to need Tea Party support.
The Republican Party, as a traditional political organization, still hasn’t come to terms with the Tea Party movement.  They would like to think they could control it or at the very least say what its followers want to hear and keep them quiet.  But this isn’t a traditional political organization.  Linked by the Internet it’s harder to put something over on these folks. But perhaps most importantly, and what makes them unique, is that they aren’t beholden to any particular political organization, and though conservative, aren’t afraid to make life difficult, not just for Democrats but for Republicans as well.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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