- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 29, 2016

They were the toast of the 2010 tea party movement, but Donald Trump’s election has left Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Mike Lee searching for new roles as they begin their second terms in office.

Each of the three climbed onto the national stage as new kids on the block, ousting Republican establishment favorites and becoming the face of the anti-Washington tidal wave that swept the elections that year.

But Mr. Trump has outflanked them — and everyone else — in the anti-Washington sweepstakes in 2016, defeating both Kentucky’s Mr. Paul and Florida’s Mr. Rubio in this year’s Republican presidential primary, and leaving them to rebuild their careers as Capitol Hill players.

Whether they and Mr. Lee, a libertarian-leaning conservative from Utah who remained at odds with Mr. Trump throughout the campaign, become congressional allies of the incoming president or continued thorns in his side remains to be seen — though tea party leaders say there’s a critical role for them to play in keeping the unpredictable Mr. Trump on track.

“These guys are going to the enforcers,” said Steve Lonegan, a tea party activist. “They can help force the Republican Party to live up to its promises.”

Others are more skeptical about how much sway the 2010 tea party darlings will have on a Capitol Hill many voters consider out of touch.

“Mike Lee, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are going to make some great speeches, but remember, these individual legislators, even the best of them, are operating as a small piece of a large body, and that large body doesn’t really care about the country,” said Mark Meckler, president of Citizens for Self-Governance and co-founder of Tea Party Patriots.

Mr. Meckler said that while Mr. Trump represents a break in the White House, Congress is still controlled by Republicans who failed to overturn any of President Obama’s agenda.

“This is the same Congress that we had before this election, with the same steely eyed leadership that defunded Obamacare — oh wait, they didn’t do that. This is the same steely eyed leadership that prevented Obama from funding executive [immigration] amnesty — oh wait, they didn’t do that,” he said. “Everybody thinks things are going to be so incredible because Trump is going to be in office. I would argue we don’t know.”

Mr. Rubio wasn’t supposed to be in Washington. When he ran for the presidential nomination, he signaled he was done with the Senate, saying he found the glacial pace of the place frustrating. But after losing to Mr. Trump, and under pressure from GOP party leaders, he had a rethink and jumped back into the race for his seat, cruising to an easy victory for a second term.

Along the way, however, he shed some of the tea party aura he’d built in 2010, including backing a bipartisan immigration overhaul bill and supporting deficit spending to combat the Zika virus.

Mr. Rubio has signaled that he wants to put his imprint on world affairs and has warned that he has “serious concerns” about Mr. Trump’s selection of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of state, who has had a business relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState,” Mr. Rubio, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee that will handle the confirmation hearing, said on Twitter this month.

Mr. Paul had kept open the option of running again for his Senate seat should his presidential bid flame out, which it did after some acrimonious exchanges with Mr. Trump in the primaries.

He has signaled that he’ll take on the role of referee in a Trump administration, pushing the new president to stay true to his campaign warnings against military adventurism, even threatening to join Democrats in filibustering Cabinet nominees who go against that message.

The Kentucky Republican also has made it clear that he will push Congress to hold an up-or-down vote on a new authorization for waging the war against Islamic State — the current authorization dates back to the 9/11 attacks — and for Mr. Trump to follow through on his promise to slice taxes.

“One of the things I liked about Donald Trump’s campaign was that he ran on a big, bold tax plan, that cut taxes for every American, and it was NOT revenue neutral. The government would get less money and every American would keep more,” Mr. Paul said in an op-ed on Breitbart.com.

For his part, Mr. Lee spent 90 minutes this month with Mr. Trump discussing their shared desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act and on legislation to reduce federal regulations. But they did not broach the topic of Mr. Lee serving on the U.S. Supreme Court — a possibility some conservatives are lobbying for.

Tea party leaders said, in the best scenario, their three champions from the 2010 election will find ways to work together with their new party leader to cut the size of government.

“We gave Republicans the House in 2010 and Senate in 2014, and now they have the White House, so there is really no excuse not to start imposing some fiscal sanity on America,” said Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation. “I see Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Marco Rubio not necessarily being a check, but being partners with Donald Trump.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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