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Tea party: Libertarian revolt or religious right in disguise?

In Texas and some other states, the tea party has focused on abortion as much as the state deficit. Five months after its successes in Election 2010, the tea party faces a reckoning: What does it stand for?

By Jon BrandContributor / April 21, 2011

A woman wore a sign expressing her feelings at a tea party rally in downtown Houston last spring.

Pat Sullivan/AP/file

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Austin, Texas

After the tea party helped stake Texas Republicans to huge majorities in the state Legislature last fall, the Republicans had a curious response. They did not immediately take on the state's $27 billion deficit; instead they considered a series of bills straight from the religious right's playbook – antiabortion legislation foremost among them.

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Even now, as the Legislature tackles the budget deficit, social issues are near the surface. A member of the tea party caucus proposed a budget amendment that calls for funding "family and traditional values centers" at some universities.

In November, the tea party swept candidates into Congress and statehouses on promises of setting America's financial house in order. But today, the tea party's track record suggests that a great reckoning is under way.

In places like Texas, where the religious right holds sway, the movement is moving to embody a broader conservative agenda. Elsewhere, tea partyers are striving to keep social issues from "ruining" the movement.

Ever amorphous and leaderless, the tea party remains a geographically diverse group with members who have fundamental ideological differences over what the movement stands for. But with polls suggesting that support is waning, the movement's identity could be key to its prospects on the national and state level: Must it incorporate wider conservative values to grow and survive, or would that be a fatal repudiation of its very identity?

"Social issues have created a potential for internal schism within the tea party," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "They have consensus against big government, but the libertarian wing is against introducing social issues."

Last year, Indiana governor and national tea party leader Mitch Daniels called for a "truce" on discussing social issues. But in many states, tea partyers have kept social measures in the spotlight.

In Oklahoma and South Dakota, tea party lawmakers have proposed strict antiabortion bills. Montana has challenged gay rights, and Indiana recently passed a bill that would outlaw same-sex unions. At the national level, congressional Republicans fought to the 11th hour on April 8 to cut federal funding for abortion provider Planned Parenthood and to ban foreign aid to countries that would use funding for family planning services.

In Texas, the first few weeks of the legislative session this year were spent passing measures like a controversial bill requiring women to have a sonogram before undergoing an abortion. The bill's author, Republican Sen. Dan Patrick, chairs the Legislature's tea party caucus.

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