WASHINGTON — Jenny Beth Martin looked out on the rain-dampened crowd along Constitution Avenue and pointed over her shoulder at the Capitol.
“They heard us, but they’re not listening!” Martin, a tea party leader, told members of the movement that helped put Republicans in charge of the House last November.
The crowd booed.
Four months after the historic election, the populist force that helped drive Republicans to power is finding that its clout on Capitol Hill isn’t automatic.
Sensitive talks over how many billions of dollars to cut from this year’s federal budget have strayed far below the Republicans’ campaign promise to slash $100 billion. Rather than standing firm and allowing parts of the government to shut down until enough lawmakers came around, House Speaker John Boehner was doing exactly what the tea partiers thought they had elected Republicans to avoid: negotiating with President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats over spending cuts.
“Cut it or shut it!” chanted the crowd outside the Capitol on Thursday.
Among those not balking were some of the 87 freshmen Republicans, who more than anyone in the House owe their seats to the tea party juggernaut.
One group, Tea Party Nation, called for Boehner’s ouster. But the Ohio Republican made clear Thursday that, like it or not, a budget compromise loomed on the horizon.
Bullfeathers, shot back tea partyer Tom Altman.
“They’re chicken. They’re cowards,” said the 60-year-old resident of Westmoreland County, Pa., who says he’s been active in Republican politics. Of the House’s ruling GOP officials he said: “They’re our employees. We need to fire them.”
“It’s not the Republican freshmen, it’s Boehner and the Republican leadership,” said Cincinnati retiree Richard Ringo. “Last year, a lot of people thought, ‘Well, the Republicans are in power now, we can relax.’ But they’re doing the same thing they always do, whether it’s the Republicans or the Democrats.”
There had been signs for days that some of the GOP freshmen have been educated by their real bosses — their constituents — on the fact that governing is what lawmakers get paid for. And sometimes compromise is the only path to making policy.
Just wait, advises freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger, for the fireworks over next year’s budget, as well as a must-pass bill to allow the government to borrow more money to meet its commitments. Republicans hope to use that measure to force further spending cuts on the president.
“What I tell folks is: This is like Fort Sumter in the Civil War,” the Illinois Republican said in an interview Wednesday. “This is the first fight. The big battle is still ahead of us.”
Out in the rain on Thursday, the tea party got a pep talk from its star lawmaker, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who might run for president.
“There are people here in Washington, D.C., who thought after the November election that you were all going to go home and go back to sleep,” she told the crowd. “You’re paying more attention now than ever. Because you have an investment in what is happening in Washington, D.C. You made the difference.”
Other members of Congress, including a few of the House freshmen, attended the rally. One of them, Rep. Allen West of Florida, told the crowd that people keep asking him why he won’t compromise on a budget deal.
“You did not send us up here to set the bar low,” West said. “I am not going to lower my standards.”
But even lawmakers who are tea party favorites suggested subtly that that a compromise might not be a total loss for the tea party.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., told the tea partiers that cuts being discussed aren’t “anything to write home about.”
“It is actually just a down payment. Maybe it’s just earnest money on restoring fiscal discipline,” Pence said. “But it’s a start and it’s a first step. And it’ll be a first win for taxpayers that could set the stage for larger victories.”