Collapse of the omnibus spending bill: rise of the 'tea party Congress'?

Some see ideals of tea party movement at play in Senate, after a huge spending bill loaded with earmarks is scuttled after GOP lawmakers thought twice about it.

By , Staff writer

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    Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell addresses reporters Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
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On the anniversary of the actual Boston tea party some 237 years ago – when pesky colonists dressed up as Indians and threw the King's tea into Boston Harbor – the modern invocation of that revolutionary spirit tossed another expensive package overboard Thursday: a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill.

After leading a Republican charge into the House in the Nov. 2 midterm elections, the anti-debt, anti-federalist tea party movement notched its first major legislative victory Thursday by standing up to big-spending Democrats and Republicans and forcing Republican leadership to revoke its support of a bill laden with $8.3 billion worth of legislative earmarks – lawmakers' pet projects known as pork-barrel spending.

Among other spending priorities, the bill included a total of $1 billion to kickstart the first phase of the federal health-care reform law passed in April, meaning that its defeat likely lays the groundwork for Republicans to follow through on their promise to gut funding for the landmark legislation – per the tea party's wishes, by the way.

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The failure of the omnibus bill "is a reminder for Democrats that their 'historic' legislation may be short-lived," writes Washington Post conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin.

Sen. Harry Reid, who had to shelve the bill when Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, under grassroots pressure, swayed nine critical Republican lawmakers to resist it, complained that its failure indicated that Republican leadership has become "a wholly-owned subsidiary of the tea party."

Faint praise, perhaps, but tea party activists across the country clearly took the repudiation of the pork-laden spending bill as its first major legislative victory and a sign that the grassroots movement will be able to wield influence over the Republican agenda.

"The sun rises tomorrow on a new political landscape" said commenter "reheiler" on National Review, in response to the failure of the omnibus bill. "I grew up on a horse farm. They behave differently after they've been broken."

"The Republicans recognized the lesson from the election: that the grass roots, the tea party, does not want unnecessary federal spending, and they realized that they ignore that sentiment at their own peril," adds Wendy Schiller, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, R.I. The Democrats, meanwhile, "miscalculated the internal pressure that fiscal conservatives are putting on Republicans – they didn't think that some of these Republicans ... would be willing to walk away from these earmarks," she says.

Earlier this week, Reid apparently believed he had locked in nine key Republican votes that would have ensured passage of a bipartisan spending package before the government officially runs out of money on Saturday.

But grassroots concern about the debt-inducing $858 billion tax-cut extension (which passed with bipartisan support Thursday) prompted Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who had himself inserted 48 earmarks into the bill, to change his tune as a vote on the spending bill approached.

Spurred on by Republican Sens. McCain, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma – as well as by vows of Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and John Cornyn of Texas to drop their earmark requests – Senator McConnell, in a flurry of 11th-hour phone calls, pulled the nine Republican votes out of Reid's hand, dooming the bill.

Outside-the-Beltway tea party groups like Tea Party Nation and Tea Party Patriots had vehemently opposed the spending bill in recent days. John Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Coburn, said the spending bill defeat was "100 percent grassroots."

As a result, "voters should be very encouraged by what happened," says Mr. Hart. "This shows that, in spite of our dysfunctions, when the American people make their voices known, it does make a difference."

The spending bill's demise, critics say, pointed out the hypocrisy of Republican appropriators who had publicly vented about over-the-top federal spending while, as Politico's David Rogers writes, putting "their hands in the cookie jar" by helping to assemble the nearly 2,000-page appropriations bill.

Instead of the omnibus bill, Congress is likely to pass a two-month extension of a current stop-gap mechanism that's been in effect since Oct. 1. That, in effect, puts Republicans in charge of the budget process, because they'll take over the House in January.

Thursday's proceedings came straight out of the tea party playbook, including tea party stalwart Sen. Jim DeMint's demand for the Senate clerk to read the entire bill – which would have taken at least 50 hours. A major part of the tea party platform, as it is, is to force Congress to impose waiting periods to allow people to read proposed bills, as well as mandating that Congress include constitutional justification of all new laws. The tea party's Contract From America document has also demanded the end of earmarks from both sides of the political aisle. Earmarks are one-time appropriations that many lawmakers see as just desserts for constituents who deserve to see federal money spent in their communities.

Ms. Schiller at Brown doesn't see the repudiation of the spending bill as ushering in a "tea party Congress," but notes that it will put additional pressure on incoming House Speaker John Boehner to build a workable coalition with freshmen tea party members before Republicans split over spending and debt-reduction principles.

More broadly, Schiller says, the omnibus bill's defeat speaks to voters' desire for Washington to rein in projects like a $300,000 farm museum in Urbandale, Iowa, and a $1 million weather camera installation in Hawaii.

"If Americans are pulling back and they're not spending money in every way they want to, it's totally reasonable to ask the federal government to do the same," she says.

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