Can the Tea Party Really Change Congress?

The Tea Party is a revolt against Washington, against federal spending and against the Republican Establishment. But how much change can it really achieve?

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WATERFORD, MI - OCTOBER 29: People attend a rally sponsored by the Tea Party Express October 29, 2010 in Waterford, Michigan. The 15-day tour began in Reno, Nevada and will end in Concord, New Hampshire on November 1st.

When Kentucky's senator-elect Rand Paul declared victory over his Democratic opponent on election night, he saluted the political movement that fueled his candidacy. "We've come to take our government back," Paul declared to a cheering throng. "Tonight there's a Tea Party tidal wave." Paul, of course, isn't the only invader to storm the Washington castle. The ranks of Senate Republicans will also include such Tea Party heroes as Utah's Mike Lee and Florida's Marco Rubio, who are vowing big cuts to spending and government influence. Meanwhile, the new GOP House majority will include a few dozen candidates either minted or substantially supported by the Tea Party, with dozens more who have signed on to its core principles.

But is change really on the way? Just how does one take the government back, anyway? Washington can absorb the impact of voter demands like an enormous air bag. The impassioned Tea Party activists who led the GOP's comeback have supersize expectations for immediate results. So did the antiwar liberals who installed a Democratic Congress in 2006, thinking a fast exit from Iraq would soon follow. (Instead, they got the surge.) And so did the legions of Barack Obama supporters in 2008, ablaze with the fierce urgency of now. After a couple of years in the Capitol swamp, even their inspirational leader was reduced to saying, "Yes we can, but..." Now the question is whether the latest crop of invaders will fare any better. Here are a few crucial tests to watch:

1 Spending Cuts
Tea Party candidates did a better job of calling for spending cuts than specifying more than trivial trimming. The House Republican campaign platform put several major spending categories off-limits, including defense and entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicaid, but didn't name a single one that might be on the chopping block. The newly empowered Republicans will be reminded that spending cuts are popular in the abstract and potentially deadly when they get specific.

But some Tea Partyers would rather risk losing their seats than tinker at the margins—or so they say. Democrats will use their continued control of the Senate to dilute any bold steps by the House GOP, but look for the likes of Rand Paul and South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint to use the Senate's powerful filibuster rule to fight back. Finding common ground could be about as easy as achieving Middle East peace.

2 Shutdown Showdown
Any deep budget cuts or further tax breaks that emerge from Congress will likely be met by Obama's veto pen—which requires two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate to override. If Obama won't accept Republican spending cuts that make it through Congress, the two camps could be headed for a budget stalemate. Many Republicans rue the last time that happened, when their party tried to force Bill Clinton to accept cuts to programs like Medicare. When Clinton refused, the federal government ran out of money and had to suspend operations—furloughing federal employees and closing national parks. Voters weren't happy, and Republicans came across as too zealous for their own good. So the GOP blinked, then gave Clinton most of the spending he wanted—and launched him toward his 1996 re-election.

That's why some GOP leaders have sounded cautious notes about risking a repeat. "Our goal is to make government smaller, not to shut it down," incoming House Speaker John Boehner said last month. But Boehner also promised the Tea Party faithful on election night that he would "never let you down." And many of those Tea Partyers reason that today's higher unemployment and debt levels place Obama in a weaker position than Clinton was. That's why some, in the words of the prominent conservative blogger Erick Erickson, are "almost giddy thinking about a government shutdown next year." Bring it on, say Democrats, who argue that the public voted for a check on Obama, not a hard-edged GOP agenda. "There's a hard-core group of people who will like [a shutdown]—maybe 25% of the country," says a senior House Democratic aide. "I think 75% will say, 'This is stupid.'"

3 Earmarks
For many Tea Party activists, runaway earmarks—spending items slipped into the budget without debate—symbolized the last Republican Congress's betrayal of conservative principles. Boehner has personally refused earmarks for years, but a ban on them was conspicuously absent from the House GOP's campaign platform this fall.

And while members of Congress like to talk big about stopping earmarks—Democrats did the same thing in 2006 but barely tamed them—the practice carries on as pols look for tangible ways to deliver pork. Watch for whether Tea Party members start inserting earmarks in order to curry favor with the folks back home.

4 National Debt
Sometime early next year, the U.S. will reach the $14.3 trillion national-debt ceiling imposed by law. That may sound dull until you realize that only a vote by Congress can extend the Treasury's borrowing authority--and that the alternative is a potential default on the debt. The consequences of a default are potentially catastrophic. Short of a tax hike or bank bailout, there's hardly a less popular vote that members of Congress could cast: when the Democratic Congress last raised the ceiling, in February, not a single Republican voted in favor. And Congress's new crop of ferociously antidebt Tea Partyers isn't likely to change that dynamic, which sets Republicans up for a high-stakes confrontation with the White House that risks a global financial crisis. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich advised fellow Republicans to attach spending cuts and a prohibition on new tax hikes to any debt increase and dare Obama to veto it. But even that approach would amount to a compromise for the Tea Partyers, who say the days of Washington dealmaking must end.

5 Looking to 2012
The next campaign has already begun, and Tea Party activists are warning that even their freshly elected victors will be under close watch. "We have to hold these people accountable," says Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the movement-leading Tea Party Express. "If they don't do the right thing and stand on principle, then we'll fire them."

The divided government in Washington might ordinarily be a time for moderates with bipartisan credentials to forge across-the-aisle compromises. But the Republicans most likely to try would risk facing Tea-fueled primary challengers. Think Senators Richard Lugar of Indiana, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Maine's Olympia Snowe. Conversely, several Democrats facing tough re-elections might be more inclined to meet Republicans in the middle of the road—figures like Senators Jon Tester of Montana and Jim Webb of Virginia, who narrowly won seats in purple states four years ago and thus have no appetite for picking sides in a showdown. But will any Republicans be waiting in the middle to greet them? Not likely.

If this looks like a prescription for gridlock, it is. It could leave independent voters disappointed that Washington isn't delivering solutions. And it could leave the Tea Party's activist base as frustrated with the pace of change as the hopeful Democrats who preceded them.