Will the Republican Leadership Face a Tea Party Rebellion?

The new Congress hasn’t been seated yet but signs of a rift are already beginning to emerge between Republican leaders and Tea Party groups who were a driving force propelling many unknown candidates to victory last month.  

From the tax cuts extension bill to the food safety legislation to Republican selections for key House committee leadership posts, Tea Party leaders have expressed outrage at what they perceive is a continuation of the same old Washington-style politics.

“In addition to the ‘backroom deal’ tax compromise, last week, through their appointments to chairmanships of the Energy and Commerce and the Appropriations committees, they [House Republican leaders] sent a clear message that despite an electoral victory driven by the Tea Party movement and fueled by public disgust with incumbents, Washington is back to business as usual,” Tea Party Patriots founders Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler wrote in a scathing op-ed in Politico.

The Tea Party dissent on tax cuts was clear in the House, where the movement’s supporters like Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. — founder of the Tea Party caucus — voted against the bill. Sen.-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky said he would lean against voting for it if he were in office, while Tea Party darling Sarah Palin called it a “lousy deal.”

The Tea Party’s discontent, however, hasn’t gone unnoticed. As they were assailed on the tax cuts front, the GOP leadership quickly distanced themselves from the 1,924-page, $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill filled with $8.3 billion worth of earmarks. Many Republicans initially supported the bill and were in fact responsible themselves for many of the earmarks, including the top two pork projects.

“On the omnibus bill, [Senate majority leader] Harry Reid didn’t have the votes and I think that’s a testament to the strength and the power of the movement,” Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the Tea Party Express, a critical player in the 2010 midterm elections, told ABC News. “The Tea Party movement is alive and well and it’s still engaged and we’re going to hold these people’s feet to the power.”
With the new Congress yet to be seated, it remains unclear how closely the Republican leadership can align their interests with that of the Tea Party movement.

But it is clear that the GOP leadership may have to shrug off some of its traditional ways of doing business.

Pressured partly by the Tea Party, many Republican lawmakers have already disavowed earmarks, saying they won’t put any pork projects in bills even though they could lose millions for projects in their home districts and states.

“It’s going to be a question of how seriously does the Republican leadership take the power base that’s now taking their seats in Congress in January,” Meckler told ABC News. “If they take it seriously and if they govern according to the mandate that the American people have given them, then I think it’ll be fine. If they don’t, then you’re going to see a lot of in-fighting. You’re going to see freshmen who are putting up a serious fight and ultimately you will see a bit more house cleaning in 2012.”

The Tea Party movement emerged as a powerful force in the 2010 election cycle, helping elect members of Congress across the country, from Tim Scott in South Carolina to Mike Lee in Utah. Even though the election is over, leaders of the Tea Party movement say their work is not yet done.

“We are their probation officers,” Kremer said of newly elected members of Congress.

“We’ve heard these people talk the talk for the past 12 months or however long during campaign season while they were running for office,” Kremer said. “Now it is their time to walk the walk and we want to see it happen. And if they don’t do what they said they were going to do we will remember in 2012, and it’s not that far away.”

In fact, preparations for 2012 have already begun in earnest. Red State’s Erick Erickson published a list of potential Tea Party targets in 2012 on his popular blog. The conservative blogger advises his readers to not get all giddy about people like Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, or Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., who hail from moderate states, but instead target more middle-of-the-road Republicans like Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah “as we have a much greater certainty of both beating them in primaries and also winning the general election.”

There is still a lot of “house cleaning” to be done in 2012, Meckler warns.
“We don’t consider this to be an electoral cycle movement. This is a long-term approach to taking the country back to its founding principles. We expect it will take us a long time to clean up the mess,” he told ABC News.

FreedomWorks, an umbrella organization for Tea Party groups, launched www.StopPorkSpending.com where people can monitor their senators’ and representatives’ votes on spending bills.

Tea Party Patriots is planning to launch next year an index rating of how members of Congress voted, in an effort to continue serving as the “watchdog” for the American people, Meckler said.