Antsy for results, tea party supporters gathered for a weekend strategy summit say they’re intent on making sure the Republicans they helped return to power last fall live up to promises to dramatically change course in Washington.
That idea emerged as an apparent consensus among the more than 2,000 people attending the Tea Party Patriots event, which wrapped up Sunday in Arizona. The meeting of the conservative-libertarian coalition was filled with warnings to the GOP not to squander their new base of support, at the risk of diminished help or challenges from the right.
Among the messages from attendees: Congress is too timid when it comes to slashing spending, Republican leaders seem too willing to compromise with President Barack Obama to avoid a government shutdown, and the newly empowered GOP won’t take a firm enough stand to tamp down the nation’s debt.
“A $100 billion budget cut was the first thing they promised. Have we seen that? No. But we’ve heard excuses,” said Donna Woodrum, a conservative organizer from San Diego.
Her husband, John “Woody” Woodrum, said he’s a diehard Republican, but promises he won’t let the GOP have a pass if it doesn’t hew to a conservative agenda.
“The GOP is really Gentlemen On Parole,” said Woodrum, an executive of a truck parts company. “You’re there for two years. It’s not an anointment, it’s an appointment.”
In 2010, voters who identified with the tea party breathed life into a Republican Party that lacked a foothold in Washington. The GOP gained 63 seats in the House in November to wrest control from Democrats; they drew closer in the Senate, where Democrats still maintain a 53-47 advantage.
Faith and Freedom Coalition chairman Ralph Reed stirred audience members to their feet with his stern message to Republicans in Washington. “If you turn your back on tea party movement and the principles it has forwarded, you will consign yourself to permanent minority status,” he said.
The House, spurred by tea party-backed Republican freshmen, passed $61 billion in spending cuts earlier this month. Republican leaders insist more cuts are on the way, but the initial reductions already face stiff resistance from both Obama and the Democratic-led Senate.
Freshman Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona got a first-hand look Saturday at how difficult it can be to govern and keep a key constituency satisfied. He appeared on a panel discussion about a looming vote to raise the country’s borrowing limit as the federal government nears the current $14.3 trillion cap on its debt.
When Schweikert asked the tea party members how they’d vote, a resounding “Noooo!” came his way. In response, he cautioned about a collapse in bonds, including those held by retirement funds. Schweikert blamed Democrats for the predicament.
“We’re up against a wall. They have set us up in a very ugly position. When we say hell no — BOOM! we get buried, absolutely buried,” Schweikert said, suggesting a tradeoff might make sense. “We need to be really, really, really smart. They don’t get my vote (to raise the cap) unless they get some really substantial cuts (in federal spending).”
After serving as a turnout engine last year, the movement’s members say they have matured into a watchdog role. But their recourse for punishing wayward elected officials is unclear. Some laughed off the prospect of voting for Democrats. Others said the hours logged on the phone and at rallies designed to get people to vote could diminish if they aren’t satisfied. Primary challenges are also possible, they said.
“If they do what they say they are going to do, we are behind them 100 percent the next time they come up for the election,” said retiree Kaye Woodward of Livingston, Texas, who keeps a book of congressional contacts in her purse. “If they don’t, we’re going to pull up another candidate to run against them.”
Some speakers urged the tea party faithful to focus their energy on booting Obama from the White House and regaining GOP control of the Senate. Democrats will defend 23 Senate seats in 2012, including a pair held by independents; 10 Republican-held seats are on the line.
Tim Duvall, who runs a medical device company Walnut Creek, Calif., said he is willing to cut the new crew some slack.
“We didn’t get into this mess overnight,” Duvall said. “You don’t reverse direction or change it in 60 to 90 days.”
Others aren’t as patient. Steven Blank, retired from his machine and welding business, helps vet candidates for his local tea party group at home in Manistee, Mich. He said principles — and not party label — matter most.
“If they’re not living up to the expectations of the tea party people, they will be eliminated one by one,” Blank said.