So, even if House Republicans live up to the “Pledge to America” they released in September and cut domestic discretionary spending next year to 2008 levels, those cuts have no chance of passing the Senate. Attempts to undo the health care law will be limited, at best, to defunding the regulatory apparatus behind the law—and those efforts will still be vulnerable to a presidential veto. Agreements on tax cuts and any entitlement reforms must be bipartisan, giving Obama some credit and bowing in some cases to his ideology—a surefire tea party trip wire.
To tea party activists, this may all sound like exactly the kind of Washington minimalism that drove them to rebel in the first place, and to find their voice in the anti-elite campaigns of Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado, Linda McMahon in Connecticut, Joe Miller in Alaska, Rand Paul in Kentucky, and John Raese in West Virginia. Some or all of these candidates will arrive in Washington as senators, and it’s to imagine that they will allow their anti-establishment impulses to be tamed.
But McConnell and Kyl foresee no difficulties keeping the larger GOP contingent together. “This is the kind of problem you’d like to have,” Kyl said. “I don’t buy the notion we are going to be all that fractured.” For his part, McConnell says he’ll be happy to be rid of the days of a 41-seat minority where there is no margin for error in blocking legislation and “where every man is a king and every woman is a queen.”
In one sign of conditional unity, Sen. Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican who backed many tea party candidates in open defiance of McConnell and other GOP leaders, says he isn’t spoiling for a leadership fight. But note the qualification. “I have no intention of challenging the leadership,” DeMint told National Journal. “What I have done over the last year has ruffled a lot of feathers in our conference. The chance of me getting the votes is not realistic at this point.” But DeMint says that Senate Republicans must change the way they approach spending and do it soon, or tea party activists will lose faith and rebel even more.
“We have to understand, this is not so much a Republican victory.… I see it more as a realignment of American politics,” DeMint said. “We’re going to have more Republicans, and the composition is going to be more of a limited-government idea. The biggest challenge we have is to change the idea that senators are here to do what is best for their states, to get all they can for their states and the interests operating in their states.”
And this is where DeMint is spoiling for a confrontation. He wants Republicans to cut spending no matter what effect those reductions have on their home-state constituents. He says this would be a “definitional” culture shift among Republicans, and he considers the pledge made by all the Senate GOP candidates—including relative moderates such as Mark Kirk of Illinois and Carly Fiorina of California—to adopt the no-earmarks policy the beginning of that change. DeMint sees earmarks as a symptom of a deeper problem: the structural bias for more discretionary spending and the clout that comes with it.
To reverse that trend, DeMint wants to upend generations of bipartisan logrolling. What’s his ask? That GOP leaders permanently exclude themselves from the Appropriations Committee, which allocates non-entitlement spending. If that rule had been in place during this Congress, three GOP leaders would have been kicked off Appropriations—McConnell, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. “If we are going to cut spending, we have to take the power away from those responsible for spending,” DeMint says. “We have to say no to a power base that can be corrupting over time, not in the sense of anything criminal, but in the sense that your focus is spending and not cutting.”
McConnell was icily noncommittal about DeMint’s idea: “We will debate any rule changes brought before the conference.” Kyl is downright opposed. “That suggests there’s something wrong with [the current system],” he said. DeMint’s point is that there is, in fact, something wrong with the current system. Thus, Senate Republicans may find themselves divided over their own rules even before they begin to grapple with Obama over spending, tax rates, or entitlements.
When McConnell started reviewing the history of Congresses that won big against unpopular presidents but saw those gains slip away, he didn’t find any notations about keeping grateful constituents from their federal largesse. But times are changing, and McConnell may find that as he tries to learn from the past, his most impassioned new colleagues instead want to renounce and transcend it.
This article appears in the Oct. 23, 2010, edition of National Journal.