- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2011

To those who predicted that the tea party movement would get swallowed up by Washington, Sen. Rand Paul says the cynics have got it completely backward — it’s the tea party that has co-opted Capitol Hill.

The Kentucky Republican said in an interview that President Obama and most lawmakers have lined up behind the tea party’s drive to end earmarks, while House and Senate Republicans are pushing bills to cut spending and repeal the president’s health care overhaul — two more of the movement’s top priorities.

Mr. Paul is a leading member of one of the most closely watched new class of lawmakers to hit Capitol Hill in a long time — tea party activists and political newcomers whose energy helped usher in a GOP majority in the House and an expanded Republican minority in the Senate.

“People asked whether we would be co-opted by Washington, I think we are co-opting Washington,” Mr. Paul told The Washington Times, just hours after he and two colleagues held the first meeting of the Senate’s Tea Party Caucus, which they said would serve as the liaison between the grass-roots movement and the people it helped propel to power.

“The president of the United States has been co-opted by the tea party,” Mr. Paul told the more than 200 people in attendance. He noted that in his State of the Union address Mr. Obama vowed to veto bills that include earmarks and to undo part of the health care law that imposes burdensome tax filing requirements on businesses.

Mr. Paul, whose crushing defeat of an establishment Republican in the primary and his victory in the general election epitomized the tea party’s rising influence last year, said he supports the new House practice of requiring lawmakers to cite constitutional authority for each bill they offer. He has also introduced a 12-page bill that he said will cut $500 billion in federal spending immediately.

Dwarfing the other cost-cutting proposals on the table, Mr. Paul’s plan would gut the Education and Energy departments and impose across-the-board spending cuts, including in the Pentagon’s budget. He dismissed criticism that his plan is too radical.

“Most of official Washington thinks that is way too dramatic, but, guess what — it’s not enough,” Mr. Paul said. He argued that Mr. Obama’s plan to freeze some domestic spending over the next five years “falls completely flat” because it affects only about 12 percent of the budget and does not begin to roll back the dramatic spending increases of the last two years.

Speaking at the Tea Party Caucus kickoff, fellow founding member Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, applauded Mr. Paul’s proposal, telling the crowd that when the Kentuckian rolled out the plan many people wanted to brush it aside because it came from a “far right-winger.”

“But if I walk through this crowd, I’m hearing, ‘Why aren’t you cutting $1.5 trillion? That’s what our deficit is,” Mr. DeMint said, garnering applause and laughter from the audience.

But passing Mr. Paul’s spending cuts will be an uphill battle as both parties have played a hand in increasing the size of the federal budget, while failing to find ways to pay for the additional spending.

However, tea party activists hope that will change now that the recent election has breathed new life into the anti-government, anti-spending philosophy that they say fell out of fashion under President George W. Bush and during the first two years of the Obama administration.

Thursday’s town-hall-style caucus meeting was organized by Mr. Paul, Mr. DeMint and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, and featured guest appearances from Sens. Patrick J. Toomey, the Pennsylvania Republican who has not joined the group, and Jerry Moran, the Kansas Republican who announced his intent to become part of the caucus.

The lawmakers said they hope the caucus will help the tea party as it transitions from a protest movement into a serious legislative machine that can defend the Constitution, battle government overreach and take aim at the deficits and the $14 trillion national debt.

A crucial early test for the caucus will center on whether to raise the federal government’s debt ceiling. Mr. Toomey dismissed as “factually untrue” claims that a failure to immediately raise the debt ceiling would result in the federal government defaulting on its loans.

“We should take off the table the false argument that failure to immediately raise the debt ceiling results in the default on our loans,” Mr. Toomey said. He has proposed a 13-line bill that says in the “event that we don’t raise the debt ceiling, the Treasury is hereby instructed to make debt service the first priority.”

Mr. Toomey, echoing the sentiment of caucus members, said that lawmakers should raise the nation’s borrowing limit only after enacting significant spending cuts and budget reforms, including a balanced-budget amendment that many tea party supporters see as a crucial tool needed to pull the country out of the red ink.

“The opportunity in my view is to use this moment to insist we are going to change the fiscal course of this country,” he said.

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