Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 14, 2016

Tea Party Pointing Fingers at GOP Leadership, 5 Years In

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Rick Santelli rant heard ’round the world five years ago is credited with starting the tea party, and if you ask Republicans in Congress, the conservative movement has a mixed legacy.

“There’s a reality that we have a president that is further left than any president we’ve ever had in history, and there’s a reality that Harry Reid is a compliant, willing accomplice of the president to accomplish his agenda,” Rep. Michele Bachmann told CQ Roll Call. “So knowing that, I think the tea party is doing as well as it can.”

The Minnesota Republican founded and is still serving as chairwoman of Congress’ Tea Party Caucus, but she is calling it quits this year instead of seeking re-election.

Bachmann identified the 2010 election as “clearly” the “high-water mark” for the movement: “The tea party was responsible for removing the gavel from Nancy Pelosi’s hands and putting it in John Boehner’s hand and making him speaker. That effectively put the brakes on the Obama agenda in a very forthright way.”

But five years in, the political movement is not easy to evaluate. Among the sentiments we heard from Republican lawmakers as we assessed the tea party over the past week were that it’s been successful, that it’s pushed legislative change on spending issues, that it’s still experiencing growing pains, and even that it’s “dangerous.”

There’s not much of a central organization inside the Congress. (Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus website hasn’t been updated since June.) Newer lawmakers, like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have taken over much of the tea party spotlight.

Still, many of the tea party’s goals have been thwarted — Obamacare still stands largely untouched and the president is moving forward with a vast regulatory agenda. But the one area where the tea party’s impact has been lasting and deep is in reversing the stimulus spending policies of the president and enacting the deepest discretionary spending cuts in memory.

“The tea party’s legacy is to really expose the spending that’s out of control in Washington,” said RSC Chairman Steve Scalise of Louisiana.

“We were elected as a restraining order,” said Michael C. Burgess of Texas.

And they gave Republicans what may be an enduring House majority.

For Billy Long of Missouri, who rode the tea party wave to Congress in 2010, the movement was a motivator. The tea party “got people up off the couch and got ’em out to vote,” he said.

Another hallmark of the tea party has been a bold challenge to the establishment, and even GOP leaders under the Dome.

“Folks say it was about Obama. It was in part,” said Tim Huelskamp of Kansas. “But it’s about Republicans not living up to what they claim to believe in.”

He argues that a debt ceiling increase without “a single dime’s worth” of spending cuts “is exactly why the tea party says we need new blood in the Republican Party.”

“Washington is still out of touch,” Huelskamp said. “Taxes are still too high. We spend too much money. And the right question is: What has the Republican majority done? I think the tea party would say, ‘Not enough.’”

The Tea Party Patriots have started a petition to fire Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio. It has 88,888 signatures.

A number of tea party Republicans — Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho, Justin Amash of Michigan, Thomas Massie of Kentucky — pushed Boehner to put a clean debt ceiling increase on the floor and let Democrats pass it. And Boehner largely blamed those GOP members who would not consider voting for any proposal raising the debt limit as his weakness in negotiating. Huelskamp defended his conservative allies.

“What they were saying is the Republican leadership is too weak. And they’ve shown us they’re not willing to fight,” he said. “That’s why we need to go through another election cycle.

“At the end of the day, problems are not getting done; they’re getting worse,” Huelskamp said. “For most tea party folks, they’re tired of the talks, they’re tired of the rhetoric, show us what you’ve done. Show us that you’re taking on this president.

“People say, ‘Hey, we did everything we could.’ Well wait a minute, no you didn’t,” Huelskamp said. “If you look at what our leadership has done, why folks are frustrated with them is they have not done everything they can.”

Michael Steel, spokesman for Boehner, had only positive things to say about the tea party’s impact.

“Virtually every Republican elected in 2010 and 2012 was proud to have the support of tea party activists, including Speaker Boehner,” he said. “Their energy and dedication have made a huge, positive difference for America.”

But some Republicans said the tea party and its never-ending search for political purity also posed an electoral danger to the Republican party.

“Great, so you can win a primary. What does that mean?” asked Michael G. Grimm, a moderate Republican from New York who recently left the Republican Study Committee. “All it means, in many instances, is that you’re guaranteeing the Democrat wins. So this ideology of ‘We have to have the most conservative person win a race’ is dangerous for the Republican party. Because the person has to be the most electable person. That’s what should matter.”

Inflammatory rhetoric that sometimes comes from the tea party can “de-legitimize our own argument, because now it’s about how outrageous what was said [is] instead of the substance of what was said.

“Then it becomes a circus and it’s not substantive,” he said.

Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin acknowledged to CQ Roll Call that with so many activists new to politics, there was a “learning curve” for the tea party over its first five years: “We’re learning how to maneuver the system with the leverage that we have,” she said. “We understand so much more now about what happens inside of Washington, D.C.”

  • skeptic2525

    The Tea Party didn’t start with Rick Santelli’s little rant. It began back in back in 2007 as a genuine grassroots movement of 20-something libertarian Ron Paul supporters before it got hijacked by billionaire activists and Republican operatives.

    • Tom Hilton II

      Daily Kos?? LOl Communist kooks!!

      • skeptic2525

        Yeah, I don’t really care for Daily Kos, too partisan for me. It’s just the first link I found to back up what I was saying. (BTW, they’re not communist you fool, just extremely liberal). But just look at the archives of from 2006-8 where the movement originally organized. The Ron Paul supporters really where the beginning of the Tea Party before the movement got stolen from them.

  • Tom Hilton II

    Michael Grimm is the biggest LIAR going. He ran AS A CONSERVATIVE in 2010 when full Tea Party support. We got him elected. He almost immediately began attacking us as extremists, became Boehner’s boy, and is now one of the three most LIBERAL (not moderate) RINOS in all Congress. We will NEVER vote for him and we demand a Primary Challenge. Remember, he WON AS A CONSERVATIVE in 2010 against an incumbent with three times the money. GOP and Conservative support was also fractured. And yet Grimm still won. He is a fraud and sell out.

  • Tom Hilton II

    Grimm also is now lying about being part Irish. He is unbelievable. A disgrace.

  • Pragmatic Conservative

    The Tea Party started out as a good thing, pushing Congress to limit spending and generally reign in government. It has morphed into a collection of libertarian anarchists whose primary goal appears to be not reforming government, but surrounding themselves with like-minded anarchists. They may be able to win in some House districts that have been gerrymandered to be dominated by right wing extremists, but they have failed miserably in most statewide elections because it was so easy for Democrats to paint them as too radical for mainstream America. They have been soundly defeated in numerous Senate contests where a less radical Republican would have easily won (NV, DE, CO, MO, IN), and the one time a Tea Partier faced a true Republican in a general election matchup, the Republican won (Lisa Murkowski in Alaska). Democrats are now actively helping Tea Partiers in contested primaries because they know the Tea Partiers will be the easiest candidates to defeat in a general election. I appreciate their enthusiasm, but until Tea Partiers learn something about political strategy (such as that alienating everyone who doesn’t agree with you 100% of the time is a losing game plan), they need to settle down.

    • Layla

      Give me a Tea Party radical ANY DAY over a Marxist Democrat. Pragmatic Conservative, me thinks you are a RINO.

      • Jesse4

        If you ever get some grown-up to tell you what “Marxist” means, you’re going to feel awfully stupid.

  • Jesse4

    You can’t really say that the Tea Party is just a bunch of worthless idiots, because they have helped the Democrats win a few Senate seats. That means they do have some worth.

  • ExVariable

    Just as creatures adapt through natural selection, cultures change based upon the success of their customs, practices, and traditions.

  • Nick10

    Polls from the well known Polling Report on-line here.
    The Tea Party Movement has very few who support the movement.
    From 2010 to 2014. Tea Party poll results.
    NBC News/Wall Street Journal. Dozens of poll results. On average.
    Yes 24% versus No 66%.
    CBS News/New York Times Poll. Dozens of poll results.
    Yes 25% versus No 65%.
    Let’s face it. The Tea Party never got anywhere. The party is over.
    P.S. Rick Santelli should remain on the trading floor where he belongs..

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