Rand Paul's big Senate test: Can tea party compromise?

Will Rand Paul's promised tea party caucus in the Senate be able to stop government spending or be forced (gasp) to compromise on the shape of 'constitutional government'?

Ed Reinke/AP
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul and his wife Kelley wave to supporters as they arrive for his victory celebration in Bowling Green, Ky., Tuesday. After the tea party's big win, will they have to learn to compromise in the Senate?

Rand Paul's victory in the Kentucky race gives perhaps the tea party's most ardent booster a seat in the Senate. He is joined by Florida's Marco Rubio and a wave of Republicans swept into the House on tea party momentum.

It gives the tea party its first real opportunity to grab the levers of power. It could also jam the congressional works worse than ever.

Mr. Paul, whose at-times controversial comments didn't prevent him from cruising to what looks like a comfortable win over Democrat Jack Conway, vowed in his victory speech to establish a tea party caucus in the Senate (the House already has one) and "send a message" to what he called "the world's most deliberative body."

But converting the tea party's newfound populist power into actual governing will be a tough task, especially in the august, complicated, and sometimes dysfunctional machinery of the US Senate.

How tea partyers such as Mr. Paul, Mr. Rubio, Dan Coats in Indiana, and John Boozman in Arkansas will react when they begin deliberations on cutting deficit spending, for example, is a major question, political scientists say. It will test the breadth of the tea party's message and even its relevance to the 2012 presidential election.

"There's a huge question of what governing looks like if tea party folks get elected to the Senate, where each individual can tie the Senate into knots by themselves," Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, told the Monitor before Election Day. "It's hard to see how Congress adopts a governing program that would satisfy most of the people in the tea party movement."

Even as Paul promised to ask the Senate to deliberate on stopping deficit spending, Sen. Jim DeMint, who won reelection as a tea party favorite in South Carolina, struck a more cautious note. While saying he would join Rand's proposed tea party caucus, DeMint added that, "I don't want to spend the next six years saying no."

The degree of separation between Rand and DeMint represents two emerging poles of the tea party. Rand represents the more fervently ideological wing of the a potential tea party caucus – standing firm on principles. DeMint might lean toward greater practicality, wanting Washington to move forward on meaningful fiscal policy that will get the economy going again.

A recent Pew Research Center poll noted that a majority of Americans actually don't want to see federal spending frozen.

"Many still mistake the tea party as one large group, sharing common interests, which our research shows is incorrect," write David Kirby and Emily Ekins in a recent Cato Institute column.

Whether the new Senate dynamics actually help Washington get the economy going again or whether it gridlocks meaningful legislation could play a role in the 2012 presidential election, which, for many tea partyers, is the movement's ultimate prize.

"With the Senate closely divided, Republicans will have to work with Democrats to get things done," writes Kate Zernike in The New York Times. "Tea Party lawmakers who refuse to go along may find they become irrelevant – certainly not the goal of all the noise and passion of the last two years."

The libertarian advocacy group Freedom Works, which has worked to get many tea party candidates elected, says the GOP should follow Paul's lead and not compromise on core tea party values such as cutting taxes and reining in spending. "The success of the GOP will not merely benefit from the Tea Party vote, it will depend on it," the organization writes in a press release.

But DeMint hinted at the idea that it will largely be up to Democrats to move toward the center in order to make room for compromise, as the GOP aims to flex some tea party muscle in upcoming debate.

"The big problem we have in Washington right now is that the Democrats are so tied into special interests that they cannot move back to the center, [meaning that] we can't work together on how to cut budget spending," says DeMint."I'm not sure how this is going to sort out."

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