Will the Tea Party Punish the GOP for the Tax-Cut Deal?

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After Republicans recaptured the House on Nov. 2, party leaders tried their best to tamp down the sense of triumph. "This is not a time for celebration," minority leader John Boehner admonished a GOP crowd during election-night festivities. "This is a second chance for us," Boehner's deputy, Eric Cantor, told CNN the next day. "If we blow it again, we will be in the wilderness for a very long time."

Though delivered to rank-and-file members, the remarks were clearly aimed at the Tea Party activists instrumental in the GOP's sweeping gains. Since their emergence as a powerful political force, Tea Party leaders have repeatedly warned that the GOP cannot take its support for granted. Lawmakers who simply used the movement as a springboard to office only to swerve from its guiding principles, they said, would be thrown from their perch at the next opportunity. With the elections behind them, Tea Party activists would promptly pivot from allies to watchdogs.

It's hard to imagine they like what they're seeing so far in the nation's capital.

In the House, key committee chairmanships were doled out to veteran Republicans whose records clash with the Tea Party policy pillars of smaller government, fiscal responsibility and free markets. The GOP Steering Committee awarded the Energy and Commerce gavel to Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan moderate whose candidacy sparked condemnations from Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, as well as a "Down with Upton" Internet petition that cited offenses ranging from his support of the Wall Street and auto-industry bailouts to his opposition to incandescent lightbulbs. To chair the powerful Appropriations Committee, GOP leaders tapped Kentucky lawmaker Hal Rogers, whose earmarking prowess led to his christening as the "Prince of Pork." Meanwhile, the ink was barely dry on the GOP's much touted earmark moratorium before members reportedly began probing for loopholes.

Ned Ryun, the president of American Majority, a Virginia-based group that trains Tea Party activists, called the committee-chairmanship choices "a slap in the face" for the movement. If that's true, one might expect that the tax plan hammered out by the White House and GOP leaders feels like a haymaker to the jaw. After chanting Tea Party mantras for months, congressional Republicans appear poised to back a bill characterized by many as a second stimulus — one that piles hundreds of billions of dollars in debt, including a slate of deal sweeteners tucked into the package to appease special interests, onto an already bulging federal budget gap.

"The GOP is going to pay dearly," says Colleen Conley, president of the Rhode Island Tea Party, "for so quickly forgetting that the people want deficit reduction and limited government."

The Tea Party Patriots, the movement's largest umbrella organization, recently circulated a petition urging members to oppose the pact, calling the framework a violation of first principles. Other conservative organizations, from the Heritage Foundation to the antitax Club for Growth, came out against the plan. Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, the firebrand of the GOP's conservative wing, told TIME last week that the plan's inclusion of deficit spending is "going to give a lot of Republicans who just ran for office heartburn." Apart from DeMint, however, few Republicans — retiring Ohio Senator George Voinovich is one, along with Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Jeff Flake of Arizona in the House — have announced they will vote against the deal.

And not all conservative activists have been quick to condemn the deal. Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, a Washington advocacy group with close ties to the Tea Party, wrote a letter backing the compromise. "It is not our ideal proposal, but it is worth supporting while concurrently pushing for a major overhaul of the entire tax code and major spending reductions," Kibbe wrote on Dec. 9. Kibbe noted that though he believed the bill's extension of unemployment insurance benefits through 2011 is "horrible public policy," it is counterbalanced by provisions that preserve the Bush-era tax rates for all Americans for two years and set the estate-tax rate at 35% above a $5 million threshold — a level that's higher than the current rate (which temporarily fell to zero in 2010) but lower than the rate and threshold (55% at $1 million) that would otherwise take effect on Jan. 1.

Like Kibbe, and many Democrats as well, other Tea Party leaders were critical of the deal's components but willing to grudgingly accept the compromise. "I'm holding my nose, gritting my teeth, turning red and not real happy with the deal," David Crow, a member of the Faulkner County Tea Party in Arkansas, wrote in an e-mail to TIME. "But we need the 10-year-old tax rates to remain in place."

Tea Party leaders are frustrated at the restoration of the estate tax, the unemployment-benefits extension and the GOP's inability to garner more than a temporary tax-rate extension, which they claim won't provide enough business certainty to spark a round of fresh hiring. Just as some Democrats have criticized President Obama for folding too soon, their Tea Party counterparts questioned the timing of the agreement. "The question I'm hearing from the grass roots is, 'What's the big rush?'" says Ken Emanuelson, a member of the Dallas Tea Party, who suggested Republicans may have committed a tactical blunder by cutting a deal during the lame-duck session, weeks before their bargaining position would be strengthened by the arrival of new lawmakers.

For nearly two years, the Tea Party has been the loudest among the choir of voices touting the importance of fiscal austerity. In a poll published Dec. 9 by the Pew Research Center, 84% of Tea Party backers said the deficit was a major problem that must be addressed right away, up from 70% of Americans overall. Fifty-one percent of Tea Party respondents also said the solution involved a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes. The muted criticism of a bill that expands the deficit without identifying offsets in spending cuts would seem to hand ammunition to critics who contend that concern for the deficit was merely a campaign battering ram, or a proxy for the party's tax-cutting zeal.

But Republican leaders, who surely can read the polls showing most Americans actually consider jobs and the economy a much higher priority than deficit reduction, are not the only group demonstrating a willingness to compromise. A separate Pew poll published Dec. 13 found that 60% of Americans backed the tax-cut deal, including nearly two-thirds of both liberals and conservatives. "I think part of the problem is that people were so exhausted. They put so much effort into the elections, and quite frankly they wanted to check out a little bit," says Ryun. "For the movement, the timing is terrible."

The timing isn't much better for conservative Republicans, who were forced to weigh in on a polarizing pact just weeks before reinforcements arrived and at a juncture when the conference is trying its best to paper over the cracks in its facade. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has said he expects the vast majority of his troops to line up in favor of the bill; on Monday just five Republicans — South Carolina's DeMint, Nevada's John Ensign, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Ohio's Voinovich — voted against ending debate and bringing the bill to the floor. After months of Tea Party vows to hold the GOP's feet to the fire, there may be enough blame to go around that no one actually gets burned.