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

Jon Ward Contributor
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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.

Various cross currents were working to muddy the picture. The tax deal was complicated. The argument over how much it increased the deficit, and the debt, and what that meant, was hard to follow. And it was the holidays. People were tired of politics.

In the background was the knowledge that what happened in the November election was not normal. The outrage expressed with Washington, and with its profligate spending and profiteering, had created a new political environment. But it wasn’t clear what the contours of that new environment were.

The haze cleared in the middle of this week, as attention turned from the tax deal – which was eventually sent on to the White House late Thursday – to the fact that the government was scheduled to run out of money on Saturday night.

Democrats pushed publicly for the omnibus, a 1,900 page, earmark-laden monster, and Republicans opposed it, even though many GOP senators had earmarks of their own in the bill. McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said he wanted to maintain current spending levels – which are a carry over from the 2010 fiscal year that ended in October – until February, by passing a simple continuing resolution.

“Once the new Congress is sworn in, we’ll have a chance to pass a less expensive bill free of wasteful spending,” McConnell said Thursday. “Until then, we should take a step back and respect the clear will of the voters.”

McConnell was said to have worked on Republican appropriators, even as a few Democrats, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri chief among them, said they would have no part in voting for the measure.

“I’m proud of the appropriations committee members … who decided that this is not the way to do it,” McConnell told National Review. “We decided that we’re not going to pass a 2,000-page bill that nobody has seen since yesterday. That’s not the way to operate and that’s not the message from the November elections.”

But the difference in focus, intensity and unity of opposition to the omnibus among right-wing groups was striking in contrast to the response to the tax deal. FreedomWorks organized calls to Senators’ offices starting late Wednesday, targeting key Democrats such as McCaskill and Sen. Jim Webb, of Virginia.

“I think they’re really engaged,” said Max Pappas, vice president of public policy for FreedomWorks. “It seems like everybody knows about the omnibus. The one trouble is some people have gotten confused between the tax bill and the omnibus.”

ATR came out strong against the omnibus bill. Heritage, which had raised concerns with the tax deal but not opposed it, posted a withering blog post on the omnibus, calling it “nearly 2,000 pages of runaway spending and pork.”

DeMint’s promise to have the entire bill read out loud, which was scheduled to begin Thursday evening, would have raised the bill’s national profile and kept it in the public’s eye for days.

“[It] couldn’t withstand public scrutiny. The procedural options were only methods to highlight the bill itself,” Hart said.

When the bill went down, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was waiting to speak to a crowd in South Carolina. When he walked on stage and announced the defeat of the omnibus, the crowd roared its approval and gave him a standing ovation, according to a CNN reporter.

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