Spending bill defeat sign that Tea Party will have influence beyond election

The defeat of a pork-laden $1.1 trillion “omnibus” spending bill in the Senate Thursday night was the first serious indication after the Nov. 2 election that the Tea Party movement has staying power and will be a force into 2011.

Some Republicans on Capitol Hill said Thursday night that GOP leadership played a pivotal role as well. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was said to have pressured key GOP lawmakers to stand firm against the legislation, though some in leadership said the conference was fairly united against it from the beginning.

What was agreed upon by most is that the same grassroots wave that propelled Republicans to a huge November win had just made its sting felt for the first time in the legislative arena.

“[It was] 100 percent grassroots … The American people took it down,” said John Hart, spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, agreed, though with a far less triumphant tone.

“Today’s maneuvers demonstrate that the House and Senate Republican leadership from here on out should be considered a wholly owned subsidiary of the Tea Party,” Manley said.

Brian Darling, who manages Senate relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation, laid success for the big GOP win at the feet of three Republican lawmakers who channeled Tea Party energy and ideals: Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and Coburn.

“But for [them], the Omnibus would have passed,” Darling said, pointing to DeMint’s threat to have the entire bill read on the Senate floor, consuming nearly 40 hours, which was joined by McCain, who emerged Thursday as a high profile and vehement opponent of the bill.

It had been an odd two weeks until Reid, a Nevada Democrat, trudged to the floor late in the day and admitted that he did not have the votes to pass the omnibus, which would have funded the government for the rest of the fiscal year, through September.

Since last Monday, conservative Republicans had been divided, thrown for a loop by the tax deal hammered out between President Obama and congressional GOP leaders. The fact that it extended tax cuts was attractive to most conservatives, but the nearly $900 billion price tag concerned a good number as well.

Charles Krauthammer said it was horrible. Mitt Romney opposed it. Fiscal hawk legislators like Rep. Paul Ryan said it was the best deal they could get. And Coburn, who has railed against every unpaid for expenditure over the last year, kept largely quiet on the deal until the day of the vote when he offered an amendment to cut spending by $160 billion that was defeated, and then voted against the bill along with four other Republicans.

Most telling, Tea Party groups founded by less experienced political operatives and based outside Washington – such as Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Nation – opposed the deal vehemently. But hard line conservative groups in D.C., such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Tax Reform, backed it.