Senate’s Republican freshmen ensure Tea Party is heard

Sen. Mike Lee, Utah RepublicanSen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican
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As the final vote on raising the government’s borrowing limit approached Tuesday, Republican after Republican took to the Senate floor to attack the bipartisan deal. The one unifying theme: Most were freshman, newly elected with the support of the tea party movement, and showed no qualms about bucking their own party’s leaders who wrote the deal.

Gone are the days when new senators are seen but not heard.

As the Senate signaled this week, freshman Republicans are not only being heard — they are carrying the Republican tea party rebellion straight into the heart of the world’s most exclusive club, where they have provided reinforcements to the small group of conservatives that for years fought losing battles on spending cuts.

“Can you imagine a family back in Kansas congratulating themselves for changing the topic without ever changing their spending patterns?” said Sen. Jerry Moran, a newly elected Kansas Republican. “Kansas families, when they’re in trouble for spending too much money, they cut the budget today, and we are not doing that.”

Powered by Mr. Moran and eight of his fellow freshmen, 19 Republicans, or 40 percent of the conference, voted against the deal their party’s leaders had struck. By contrast, only about a quarter of House Republicans balked at the legislation — a marked shift from the usual pattern, when House Republicans led the way in rebellion.

Despite their efforts, the bill ended up passing by a 74-26 tally in the Senate and a 269-161 vote in the House.

But even as he took a victory lap, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who negotiated the final deal, used his floor speech to give credit to the new members for forcing the debate in the first place.

“The American people sent a wave of new lawmakers to Congress in last November’s election with a very clear mandate: to put our nation’s fiscal house in order,” he said. “Those of us who’d been fighting the big-government policies of Democratic majorities in Congress welcomed them into our ranks. Together, we’ve held the line.”

Majority Leader Harry Reid recognized the influence of the new lawmakers, but as a worrisome force.

“I welcome them all, but a result of the tea party direction of this Congress, the last few months has been very, very disconcerting and very unfair to the American people,” the Nevada Democrat said.

In the past, the Senate had been the killing ground for ideas both Republican and Democrat, as the chamber’s collegiality and minority-rights rules acted as a brake.

That was true in 1995, when the Senate slowed many of the reforms of House Republicans’ 1994 “Contract with America.”

But this year, Senate Republican freshmen seem determined to be at the leading edge, particularly when it comes to matters of spending and deficits.

To be sure, some conservative Republicans were always willing to hold up business over spending, but the influx of freshman Republicans who share those sentiments has dramatically strengthened the GOP hand.

“It’s helped the more senior members rediscover their Republican roots,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who served in the House before winning election to the Senate in 2004.

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