Priorities of tea party lawmakers such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, include cutting federal spending. (Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse)
WASHINGTON — Each time tea party favorites appeared on stage at the recent Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference, they were met with raucous applause from the audience.
On stage, tea party-backed lawmakers such as Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas vowed to continue fighting for the conservative movement’s top priorities, such as further federal spending cuts and swatting down just about anything proposed by the Democratic president they so revile, Barack Obama.
The response raises the question: Is the conservative movement, with its insistence on federal spending cuts, including for defense, poised for a comeback under a possibly GOP-controlled legislative branch?
After tea party members stood down and allowed GOP leaders to pass several fiscal and budgetary bills in recent months, congressional sources and analysts said the caucus had lost some of its ability to pressure leadership to push only measures friendly to conservative ideologies.
But with political analysts now saying the GOP has a strong chance to take control of the Senate after November’s midterm elections, there’s a new debate in Republican circles about whether the tea party wing of the party has merely executed a strategic — and temporary — retreat.
After all, one narrative goes, tea party members will come out with guns blazing in January should the Senate swing to Republican control.
Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) member Tim Kaine, D-Va., says GOP control of both chambers would lead to more severe federal cuts.
“I think you’ll see sequestration on steroids,” Kaine told Defense News.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the party’s old-school, deal-cutting establishment, acknowledged that the tea party and other factions still are engaged in “a fight within the Republican Party.”
The dispute is part politics and part tactics.
“It’s healthy, to a large degree, to have differing points of view so that we can build consensus,” McCain told reporters. “It’s not healthy to have Republican senators raising money for organizations that attack Republican senators.”
But the core of the fight is policy, and it is rooted in hard-to-bridge ideological chasms.
Longtime GOP hawks such as McCain and others privately — and, increasingly, publicly — fume that the House tea party caucus so pressured Republican leadership for nearly three years on fiscal and budgetary issues that the best deficit-reduction tool both parties could agree on was decade-spanning, automatic defense and domestic spending cuts.
Hawks complain that the Republican Party gave up its crown as Capitol Hill’s champions of a strong US military.
“Look, you know I’m going to be the first one to tell you that we kind of need a consensus of leadership in the Republican Party. We used to be the party of defense,” House Armed Services Committee seapower and projection forces subcommittee Chairman Randy Forbes told Defense News. “We need to become the party of defense again. The reason is not for political reasons; it’s because the national defense of this country is going to depend on one party taking that lead.”
Hawks such as Forbes, who is eying the full committee’s gavel, hope GOP control of both the House and Senate would translate into legislation to increase the Pentagon’s budget.
After all, as one GOP lawmaker told Defense News, Republican control of both chambers would mean “the president would have to negotiate directly with us.”
But Forbes acknowledges it might be an uphill fight because of his spending-cuts-obsessed tea party colleagues.
“I know they could [raise defense spending]. The question is not whether they could. It’s whether they would,” he said. “A lot of that depends on the mix in the Senate.”
The SASC’s top Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, told Defense News that a second tea party blitz on federal spending cuts wouldn’t necessarily mean deeper defense cuts.
“There are just a few of the people that are in the tea party movement who are anti-defense. The vast majority are pro-defense,” Inhofe said. “They disagree with some of the libertarian types who are not pro-defense. I think that will prove itself.
“Sen. Cruz is a good example. Sen. Cruz is for a very strong defense,” Inhofe said. “I think we will take the Senate, and I think he’ll be one of the stars in that new Senate. I think we’ll take control, and we’ll be a lot more pro-defense.”
But one defense industry lobbyist cautions against expecting anything but “business as it is right now if Republicans win the Senate.”
That’s because “their margin would probably only be 51-49 or 52-48,” the lobbyist said. “Without one side getting to 60 votes, in many ways, the best you can expect is business-as-usual.”
The lobbyist said the tea party caucus lacks the “cohesion” to double down on its agenda even if the GOP soon controls the entire legislative branch.
“To really corral the tea party, what you need is a vision on defense from the White House,” the lobbyist said. “And that’s not a partisan shot. There’s no leadership in Congress, either.
“The only way things get better for defense on the Hill is if there’s a deal on tax reform or entitlements,” the lobbyist said. “Because, as the recent votes on some really modest changes for [military] personnel benefits showed, there’s absolutely no appetite in Congress for spending cuts.
“So that means the kind of deal defense needs won’t be possible until there’s a new president,” the lobbyist said. “So, yeah, for defense it’s about 2016 — not 2014.” ■
Vago Muradian in Washington contributed to this report.