Tea party freshmen balance principles, pragmatism, party loyalty

The tea party congressional candidates whose victories made 2010 a wave election for Republicans came to Washington united in their desire to slash spending, cut the size of government and place conservative principle over party loyalty.

During 21 months in office, tea party freshman lawmakers have endured detractors’ portrayals of them as ideological zombies who eschew compromise and engage in group-think. But the reality isn’t so simple: In dozens of key votes, the 68 new representatives who’d earned tea party campaign endorsements — all Republican — showed differences on a range of issues from fiscal austerity and defense spending to free trade, abortion funding and government aid for public radio.

“The desire to be independent is real amongst our folks,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina said in an interview.

The tea party lawmakers arrived in Washington in January 2011 under an election-fueled head of steam with an apparent mandate “to change business as usual” on Capitol Hill. They pushed their party elders to the right, their hard-line conservatism contributing to the gridlock that has helped make the 112th Congress one of the least productive ever.

Half of the 18 House members rated as the most conservative by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, are tea party freshmen.

But a McClatchy analysis yields a more complex picture.

Ten of the tea party newcomers voted against House Speaker John Boehner more than 10 percent of the time, an unusually large share for a freshman class. On one important vote after another — some 150 in all — they had to choose between competing conservative beliefs and among varying degrees of compromise. And as a result, the tea party contingent has scrambled traditional rankings along the conservative-liberal spectrum, skewing advocacy groups’ and news outlets’ traditional rankings of lawmakers.

The group’s most unyielding freshmen were rated centrist by outside groups because they voted with Democrats in opposing Republican bills that they said weren’t conservative enough. In an analysis of all 2011 House votes by National Journal magazine, for instance, freshman Republican Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan and Raul Labrador of Idaho were ranked among the 107 most centrist representatives, even though they are tea party heroes for their hard-core conservative stances.

Amash and Labrador joined Democrats in voting against a number of appropriations bills, but while the Democrats believed they cut spending too much, Amash and Labrador wanted deeper cuts.

“We must make drastic, across-the-board cuts to our federal spending levels,” Labrador said in explaining his votes. “We are headed to an unsustainable level of debt.”

Other tea party freshmen, by contrast, rank as centrists.

For example, Rep. Richard Hanna of Barneveld, N.Y., near Syracuse, who voted against Boehner 15 percent of the time, broke ranks on a GOP bill to oppose ending federal funding of National Public Radio, saying the legislation “amounts political censorship through the power of the purse.” The bill died in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“Clearly, the tea party freshmen have been a force for limiting government in this Congress,” said Brian Darling, a Heritage Foundation analyst. “But just as clearly, there are differences within the tea party caucus over when to compromise.” Some members are libertarian-minded, he said, while others come from tough swing districts.

“I wish they all fit that hard-line, anti-spending stereotype, but sadly they are not,” Darling said.

Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the center-left Brookings Institute think tank in Washington, said Boehner and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California had to spend a lot of time “educating” many tea party freshmen on the realities of governing.

“Boehner and McCarthy had to work really hard to convince some of the freshmen that shutting down the government was not a strategy they should take seriously,” Binder said. “And during the debt-ceiling crisis in the summer of 2011, they had to bring in outside experts to convince them that default was not an option.”

Most of the 1,552 House votes in the current legislative session have been on uncontroversial issues with broad bipartisan support, such as measures naming post offices and other public buildings or resolutions honoring constituents’ significant achievements.

But some of the 150 or so important votes not only divided Democrats and Republicans, but also split Republicans.

“I don’t think [Republican] party loyalty runs as deep with some members of the freshman class as it does generally,” Mulvaney said in a recent interview. Mulvaney is among the 10 tea party newcomers who’ve voted against Boehner more than 10 percent of the time. Among his high-profile votes were those refusing to raise the national debt ceiling, a tea party point of view that drew national attention in summer 2011.

A May 9, 2012, vote on $40 billion in additional government subsidies for U.S. exports split the tea party freshman contingent almost exactly in half, with 32 backing the increased Export-Import Bank loans and 36 opposing them. That vote pitted Republicans’ traditional support for business against their aversion to government interference in the free market.

The next day, 16 Republican lawmakers, including four first-termers, broke ranks and joined Democrats in voting against a bill to replace $1.2 trillion in forced cuts — a process known as sequestration — scheduled to start in January. The bill would have spared military cuts by replacing them with other funding hits.

“One of the areas I’ve had frustration within my party is a real refusal to find waste and abuse in the Pentagon budget,” said Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state, one of the four tea party newcomers who opposed the measure.

The analysis of key votes reveals a libertarian wing within the tea party freshman class. While they share other Republicans’ dislike of federal spending, the libertarians are more wary than their peers of expanding the government’s non-fiscal powers.

On Dec. 14, 2011, 18 first-termers voted against a $640 billion defense authorization bill that the House passed with broad bipartisan support because of an anti-terror clause giving the government new powers to arrest and detain Americans without charge. Amash, whose views often align with the libertarian policies of 2012 GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, branded the measure “one of the most anti-liberty pieces of legislation of our lifetime.”

These examples don’t, however, reflect a wave of anti-establishment thought among tea party freshmen. Almost all members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, vote how their party leaders tell them to vote nearly all the time. In the current legislative session that began in January 2011, the 435 House representatives have followed their party leaders’ positions 92.3 percent of the time.

For the 68 tea party freshmen, the figure is exactly the same — 92.3 percent of their votes have hewed GOP party lines.

That similarity is a bit deceptive, though: New lawmakers historically are more conformist than veterans, so the two groups matching each other in the current term suggests an uptick in independent thinking for the tea party freshmen of the 112th Congress.

Mulvaney said he and other tea party lawmakers ran for Congress because Republican leaders pursued big-government policies such as the No Child Left Behind education mandates, Medicaid coverage of prescription drugs and the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

“I got into it because I didn’t like what the Republican Party was doing,” Mulvaney said.