The Tea Party’s Discontent: What Now?

The red paint is still drying from the House’s proverbial color scheme change, but the relationship between Republicans and the movement that helped elect them is already starting to chip.

As the new Congress prepares to convene Wednesday, top agenda items include government program spending and the federal debt ceiling. But a Republican Party factionalized by the far-right tea party could act as its own worst enemy. Recent accounts from The New York Times and the Washington Post tell the stories of restless tea party natives, unconvinced that Washington, D.C. heard their rebel yells Nov. 2.

In the NYT article, Mark Meckler, co-founder of the original Tea Party Patriots, calls Republicans “a disaster,” and says about members of the establishment: “Do I think that they’ve recognized what happened on Election Day? I would say decisively no.”

Meckler’s sentiment echoes the tea party’s general discontent with the final product of the tax cut deal passed during the last days of the 111th Congress, even amid more blatantly liberal legislation such as the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the START treaty. Though members on both sides of the aisle saw the compromise, which extended the Bush tax cuts, as a victory for bipartisan collaboration, tea partiers accused supportive Republicans of abandoning their push for a full repeal of the estate tax.

Incoming Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was widely regarded as one of the tea party’s rising stars during the campaign season, but called tea party expectations “delusional” in the NYT article. “As long as you have a Democratic president and a Democratic-controlled Senate, I don’t think there are many people who are expecting that the government’s going to be transformed overnight into something in the image of the tea party,” he said.

Democrats seem to agree, and are expressing concern that tea party pressure will stifle bipartisan compromise.

Republicans “appear to have set a land-speed record for losing the trust of the activists who helped elect them,” said Jon Summers, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in a statement Monday. “Now, running scared, Republicans have decided their next move should be to appease the extremists in their party, no matter who it hurts.”

But Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., founder of the House Tea Party Caucus, told National Journal in November that congressional conservatives were “speaking the language of the tea party,” and FreedomWorks spokesperson Adam Brandon said he agrees.

“I can’t imagine that these guys are going to get in there and forget everything [the tea party] talked about,” Brandon said. “So now we’ve got a lot of champions and if they do their job, which I think they will, we’re going to have rock stars on the inside.”

But the field of “rock stars” just got a lot more crowded.

Following losses in their respective Senate races, tea party favorites Sharron Angle, R-Nev., and Christine O’Donnell, R-Del., each initiated her own political committee. The PACs come on the heels of 2010 races muddied by hit-or-miss overlap in tea party support. FreedomWorks caused a stir when it refused to endorse O’Donnell following her unlikely primary victory; a similar shakeup occurred when various tea party groups endorsed rival candidates in New Hampshire.

With conservative tensions already building in a not-yet-convened Congress, could the widening field of tea party competition create even more drama on the Hill?

“We don’t see it as a competition,” said Brandon. “Take Sharron Angle: The candidates she chooses and the candidates we choose may not be 100 percent, but money is very important in politics. I’d take a 90 percent partner any day.”

Brandon said he needs “all the help I can get.” Although Angle and O’Donnell were criticized for being “too extreme” as candidates, their headline magnetism and fundraising capabilities are proven commodities: O’Donnell was recently featured twice on the Associated Press’s 2010 “Top 10 Quotes of the Year,” and Angle shattered records when she raised $14 million in the third quarter of her campaign alone.

Tea Party Express spokesperson Levi Russell also denounced use of the word “competition,” but acknowledged that “if you put more players into the game, there’s going to be more head-butting.” To avoid that, Russell said the group is throwing its two cents into the 2012 ring early, while still “looking to get involved in elections to defeat the worst defenders in Congress.”

Some of its tactics so far include partnering with CNN for a presidential debate in September, planning a fifth bus tour for this summer, and forming a “House and Senate Tea Party Caucus” to enforce the tea party’s agenda in legislative processes.

“I hesitate to call it that [a tea party caucus],” Russell said, “though it would be the driving force in Congress. It’s not just about the tea party though; no one in their right mind would say we should tax more and spend more, except maybe our president.”