For tea party, victories may trigger identity crisis

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Washington Post Staff Writers


Rep. Michele Bachmann‘s announcement Wednesday that she will seek a House leadership post broadcast loud and clear that she hopes to secure a prominent place for the emboldened tea party movement in Congress.

But the news also seemed to contradict the definition of the tea party: the outsider, anti-government phenomenon that shook up the Republican Party this year and helped to oust dozens of incumbents across the country. As the founder of the Tea Party Caucus in the House and a favorite of the conservative movement, Bachmann, a two-term Republican from Minnesota, has embraced that outsider image.

As a result, her bid to be the next GOP conference leader – the No. 4 leadership spot – highlights the question of how incoming House members and senators who prevailed Tuesday under the tea party banner will make the transition from outside the Republican Party to inside, from criticizing policy to making it, and from opposing the government to being part of it.

The movement claimed three big wins in the Senate – Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania – and as many as 60 of the 83 new Republicans, who will enter the House in January. They all have vowed to topple the existing order in Washington to one degree or another, by cutting taxes, repealing the health-care overhaul and shrinking the government.

And in January, they will take their places among the thousands of other government employees in Washington. Not only must this new class of legislators reconcile their new role with their rhetoric, but they must also figure out how to put that rhetoric into action in an institution and a political party that have been the objects of their disdain.

Tea party leaders such as Bachmann could exacerbate that strain by setting up a possible clash between the movement and top GOP leaders in the House. Her bid for conference leader came after House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia (the likely next majority leader) had endorsed Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) for the job. Hensarling has one of the most conservative voting records in Congress, but he does not have the close association to the tea party that Bachmann does.

Even in the unlikely scenario that Bachmann wins the post – she does not have seniority or a large following among her colleagues – the cajoling and bartering that comes with any party leadership job would seem anathema to the purist, no-compromises ethic of the tea party.

Instead, the tea partiers-elect have continued to talk about what they won’t tolerate. Since his victory, Paul has repeated his opposition to tax increases, federal spending and thousand-page bills.

Rubio campaigned on the always reliable concept that “Washington is broken,” but he hasn’t spelled out in much detail what he intends to do now that he will be in a position to help fix it.

Rep.-elect Tim Scott of coastal South Carolina said he doesn’t think a fight with Republican leaders will be necessary, because he thinks they, too, will be ready to adhere to the limited-government principles of the tea party.

Just-elected Renee Ellmers of North Carolina said she and other tea party members will serve as watchdogs to ensure that the party’s policies adhere to the movement’s priorities.

But while the newcomers will be keeping an eye on the establishment, the tea partiers who elected them will be keeping an eye on them.

A handful of national groups, including FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Patriots, plan to pay close attention to the way the new Congress, and its newest members, vote. Those who don’t follow the principles of limited government and low taxes risk primary challenges in subsequent elections, organizers said.

In the Senate, the tea party’s influence is likely to be more muted. Although all six Republican newcomers there received some measure of backing from tea party groups, two of the movement’s prominent stars – Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell of Delaware – did not win Tuesday. A third, Joe Miller of Alaska, appeared headed to defeat against write-in candidate and GOP incumbent Lisa Murkowski.

The tension between outsider and insider was evident at Paul’s victory party in Bowling Green. Viewing the scene from the stage at the front of the room, it could have been any GOP gig, in any election year: a dark-suited pol telling dark-suited supporters that he would return to Washington to address “the serious issues that face America.”

In the back of the room, sipping drinks and keeping mostly to themselves, were some of the tea party activists who’d done a lot of the work to elect the new senator. A couple of them wore the “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirts that are de rigueur at tea party rallies. One arrived in a shirt emblazoned with an American flag. They strained to hear one another above the loud music. They did not fit in. Which was precisely the point.


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