Tea party activists are urging House Members to resist compromise in the debt limit debate, but too firm a stance by the conservative faction could marginalize the group rather than strengthen it when a final deal is cut.
Conservatives saw this happen in the continuing resolution debate, when House GOP freshmen insisted on major spending cuts that ultimately were whittled down to satisfy Democrats in the Senate and White House. Outside groups are hoping to avoid a repeat of that March defeat, but some Members are trying to manage conservative expectations on the terms for raising the federal debt limit.
"There's no doubt when you control one of the three levers of government it's very difficult to get 100 percent of what you want," Rep. Tim Scott said. "So to sell anyone on the fact that you're going to end up with all that you want or most of what you want, you're probably selling a bill of goods."
The South Carolina Republican said he learned his lesson during the CR debate, when conservatives pushed for $100 billion in spending cuts and ultimately had to settle for $38.5 billion in a deal brokered by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Scott ultimately voted for the deal, but 54 of his GOP colleagues didn't because they said the cuts weren't deep enough. The CR easily passed the House, thanks to the support of 85 Democrats.
The lesson, according to Scott: "Don't promise $100 billion."
But not all of Scott's freshman colleagues are taking the same moderating tone. Rep. Joe Walsh, a tea party favorite from suburban Chicago, said any debt limit deal should include a balanced budget amendment. The first-term Republican said his lesson from the CR deal, which he voted against, is just the opposite of what Scott learned. For Walsh, the message from his constituents was that they "don't want us at all to get soft on this one."
"So we will push as hard as we can to get this town serious about spending," Walsh said in an interview. "And if voting not to raise the debt ceiling will do it, speaking for myself, I won't do it."
Walsh predicted "there will be enough fiscally conservative Republicans" in the Conference to block a deal that doesn't sufficiently reduce spending in exchange for raising the debt limit, and grass-roots organizations throughout the country are working overtime to make sure that faction sticks together as bipartisan negotiations continue in the lead-up to the Aug. 2 deadline when the government is expected to begin defaulting on its debt payments.
The challenge for Walsh and many of his more conservative colleagues is that if they won't compromise at all, House leaders may have to search for votes in other places.
"Their refusal to consider a debt limit increase is bringing us to the negotiating table when we wouldn't otherwise have a seat," one Democratic aide said. "They'll keep their pride, but the eventual deal will be much weaker than the one they want."
Tea party leaders maintain they are in no mood to compromise. Instead, they have focused on publicly opposing any increase. The Our Country Deserves Better political action committee, which backs Tea Party Express, launched a TV ad campaign to oppose the increase. As Chairwoman Amy Kremer put it, "Our message has not only been no, but hell no."
Grassfire Nation, whose online membership of 1.8 million includes many tea partyers, has started a petition to the same end.
And Mark Meckler, a national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, had strong words for Washington, D.C., politicians who might waver on a debt limit vote.
"We think Congress has spent decades acting like petulant teenagers, and we need to cut them off from the credit card," Meckler said.
With pressure from outside groups, even those lawmakers who do not abide by the tea party agenda are working to keep from raising the movement's ire. Rep. Trey Gowdy, who was not a tea party candidate last year but represents a South Carolina district with a strong presence, has taken care to engage those groups on controversial issues such as reauthorizing the USA PATRIOT Act.
"I've never got the sense that they require me to be right 100 percent of the time," said Gowdy, a first-term Republican. "I think what they'd require is consistency with the platform with which you ran."
Similar to Scott and Gowdy, who despite their more moderate tones are nevertheless pushing for deeper cuts in exchange for their support for a debt limit increase, some groups have also taken positions that allow for some flexibility. The leaders of American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform and Let Freedom Ring recently sent a letter to Republican leaders in Congress urging them to use the debt limit increase as leverage for more spending cuts, rather than demanding any particular deal.
Some activists acknowledged the odds are against them but insist they are taking the kind of principled stand that not all GOP lawmakers have this year, especially on the CR. They express frustration at seeing Republicans accept lukewarm deals and then expect praise.
"From our side of the table, it's like, 'Really? Did you really just slap us across the face and call it a gift?'" said Christina Botteri, a member of the National Tea Party Federation. "We think it's a failure of vision on the part of the GOP leadership."
Botteri said the tea party position has been misconstrued as impractical, charging that instead it comes from tea party members feeling like Republicans have been too soft in negotiations.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R), who is eyeing a Senate bid in his home state of Utah, noted it is a challenge to satisfy some tea party groups.
"They have very high expectations because movement in this town has been so lethargic. There are people who want the budget balanced next Thursday. That's probably not going to happen," Chaffetz said. "It's got to be a very major change in order for the tea party to be pleased. They had high expectations with the CR only to find out that $38 billion may not have even been $38 billion. I think they were let down on that."
Scott predicted that House GOP leaders will heed the calls of the freshman class, who account for a third of the Conference and who, despite having to settle for fewer cuts in the CR, drove that number up beyond original predictions.
"There is a careful balance that has to be taken into consideration," Scott said, "but at the end of the day, you have to figure out where you're willing to die and stay there."