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The Tea Party in 2011: From Lions to Lambs | The Nation

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George Zornick

George Zornick

Action and dysfunction in the Beltway swamp. E-mail tips to george@thenation.com

The Tea Party in 2011: From Lions to Lambs

One year ago, Tea Party legislators were making final preparations for their glorious arrival in Washington after trouncing Democrats in the November elections. And it was a good time to be a member of the “Don’t Tread on Me” crowd. In December 2010, CNN announced it would hold a Tea Party–branded Republican presidential debate, House Speaker-to-be John Boehner defiantly told 60 Minutes that “I reject the word” compromise and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia agreed to appear before the nascent, Michele Bachmann–led Tea Party House caucus. Moreover, Tea Party legislators who weren’t even in office yet pressured Republicans who were to scuttle a large spending bill, setting up a showdown that led to the extension of the Bush tax cuts.

Sure, there were a few bumps along the way—like when one incoming Florida representative had to fire a talk-radio host he had (inexplicably) hired as chief of staff, after it was revealed the radio talker thought illegal immigrants should be hanged and that if ballots didn’t work, “bullets would”—but largely, it was a triumphant time.

In the ensuing months, the Tea Party was able to force the government to come within hours of shutting down, extracting many demands in the process, and then bullied President Obama all summer on the debt ceiling—and that standoff resulted in mandatory cuts of over $2 trillion to the federal budget and a “supercommittee” on the federal deficit, not to mention endless news coverage focused on debt and austerity.

Now, recalcitrant members of the House of Representatives, led once again by the compromise-averse Tea Party crowd, are refusing to approve a year-end bill to extend a payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits for almost 3 million Americans.

You can read our coverage of this debate over the past several weeks here, here, here and here. But in short, after President Obama and Congressional Democrats requested a one-year extension of these provisions, the Senate hammered out a compromise: a two-month extension, with a poison pill on the Keystone XL pipeline inserted.

This compromise got eighty-nine votes in the Senate—a near-unheard-of level of agreement there—including thirty-nine Republicans. Boehner said he thought the deal was “good,” only to be quickly rebuffed by the Tea Party. It thinks of the deal as “liberal Democrat incrementalism,” in the words of one Representative, and insists that every last one of its radical policy riders be attached to the final bill—from drug-testing unemployed Americans to repealing environmental regulations.

This time, the Tea Party suddenly finds itself alone: no longer controlling the media narrative nor even enjoying the support of many fellow Republicans. They came into 2012 like lions, but are poised to leave like lambs.

Here’s a brief list of all the people and outlets now publicly telling the Tea Party to end its obstruction:

§ The Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, released a statement today calling on Boehner to accept the two-month compromise. (“It’s pretty enormous,” one Senate aide said. “When was the last time McConnell broke with Boehner?”)

§ Five other GOP Senators: Scott Brown, Dean Heller, Olympia Snowe, Richard Lugar and John McCain. That’s four senators up for re-election in 2012 in purple states—a dangerous barometer for the Tea Party of its potential pull in next year’s elections—and the most recent GOP presidential nominee.

§ The architect of two Republican presidential victories, Karl Rove, who said the House GOP has “already lost the optics on it.”

§ The Wall Street Journal editorial page wrote this week that “at this stage, Republicans would do best to cut their losses and find a way to extend the payroll holiday quickly.”

There are some who believe the Tea Party is still playing the smart and tough game, and will ultimately succeed in getting more bad stuff into the bill. “The cynic’s bet is that the story of GOP dysfunction won’t matter, so long as there’s eventually some compromise. Eyes on the prize: If the other side blinks, and it always does, what can Republicans get out of them?” writes Dave Weigel in Slate.

He’s right—time and time again this past year, Democrats have relented to Republican pressure. In the Congressional game of chicken, Democrats always jumped out of the way first—making the next surrender even more likely, as the Tea Party became more emboldened.

But this time, there’s no sign that the Democrats will blink. Reid is steadfast in refusing to appoint conferees, and is demanding the House pass the Senate compromise. Boehner called President Obama this morning, asking him to force Democrats to come to conference, and the president said no dice—and reiterated that position later in the day at a White House appearance with middle-class Americans who would lose money if the payroll tax cut isn’t extended.  

For policy reasons, it’s important that the Democrats don’t give in. The Republican riders have no place in this bill and would damage the environment and shame the unemployed. But there’s a very strong political reason as well: if the House is forced to blink, as I happen to think it will, the Tea Party stranglehold on governance will finally have been rebuked, and its political capital depleted. This matters now, and for the next standoff.

Once that’s done, Democrats can embark on the much more valuable task of actually helping the middle class, instead of blaming the Republicans for hurting them, as Ilyse Hogue writes here. But first, it’s time to send the Tea Party a message: it’s had a heck of a year, but it doesn't run Washington anymore.

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