WASHINGTON — The tea partyers who helped drive GOP gains in the last election rallied in the city they love to hate Thursday, urging Republican House leaders — Speaker John Boehner above all — to resist the drive toward compromise in the protracted fight over the federal budget. Even, they say, if that means Congress fails to do its most important job: pay for the government.
"Cut it or shut it!" several hundred tea partyers chanted from their gathering place outside in the rain.
But across Constitution Avenue and inside the Capitol's thick walls, the lawmakers themselves huddled over the first glint of a deal with President Barack Obama to keep the government running for the next six months. And it was shaping up to cut $33 billion, far less than the $100 billion that Republicans promised on the campaign trail and the tea partyers are demanding.
Boehner, a House veteran of two decades, tried to prepare the no-compromise crowd earlier in the day. Like it or not, he made clear, a budget compromise loomed on the horizon.
"We control one half of one third of the government here in Washington," Boehner told reporters at his weekly briefing. "We can't impose our will on the Senate. All we can do is to fight for all of the spending cuts that we can get an agreement to."
Bullfeathers, shot back tea partyer Tom Altman.
"They're chicken. They're cowards," said the 60-year-old resident of Westmoreland County, Pa., who says he's been active in Republican politics. Nonetheless, he said of the House's ruling GOP officials: "They're our employees. We need to fire them."
"It's not the Republican freshmen, it's Boehner and the Republican leadership," said Cincinnati retiree Richard Ringo. "Last year, a lot of people thought, 'Well, the Republicans are in power now, we can relax.' But they're doing the same thing they always do, whether it's the Republicans or the Democrats."
The intensifying talks are as much a test of credibility and clout for the tea party as they are a measure of Boehner's ability to lead. There's evidence that some of the 87 members of the freshmen class have been educated by their real bosses — their constituents — on the fact that governing is what lawmakers get paid for. And sometimes compromise is the only path to making policy.
"Compromise on the subject of spending is a tough sell. It doesn't mean it's an impossible sell," said freshman Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., a member of the Appropriations Committee who won his seat with 72 percent of the vote. Though he acknowledges the voters' mandate to cut spending, "I also live in a realistic world."
Another freshman suggested the tea partyers save their powder. The current, slow-motion showdown is only over a budget to fund the rest of this fiscal year. Just wait, said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, for the fireworks over next year's budget, as well as a must-pass bill to allow the government to borrow more money to meet its commitments. Republicans hope to use that measure to force further spending cuts on the president.
"What I tell folks is: this is like Fort Sumter in the Civil War," the Illinois Republican said Wednesday. "This is the first fight. The big battle is still ahead of us."
Such rhetoric reflects an assumption that budget negotiators have harbored for weeks: that with time, those new to Capitol Hill would learn that the only way a budget passes is with spending cuts that all sides agree on. And that means reductions in the end of somewhere South of the $61 billion in the budget the House passed last month.
Talks centered on $33 billion in cuts, and there was evidence that members of the broader Republican caucus weren't balking.
"I don't believe that shutting down government is a solution to the problem. Republicans and Democrats need to work out a compromise," said Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H. "Let's get this over with and get on to the budget."
The tea party rally Thursday offered headline-grabbing rhetoric aimed at reminding lawmakers of the populist budget-cutting furor that propelled them to power. Headlining the event was the movement's star and possible presidential contender Michele Bachmann, the top Republican fundraiser in the House.
The House's top Republican leaders did not attend the event. But Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell defended the tea party movement on the Senate floor against Democrats who have suggested it has lost popularity.
A new AP-GFK poll of 1,001 adults conducted March 24-28 showed that support for the movement hasn't budged since the election. About 30 percent of respondents said they were tea party supporters, the same percentage reported in all four surveys since October in which the question's been asked.
"If you ask me, the goals of the Tea Party sound pretty reasonable," McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday.
"These folks recognize the gravity of the problems we face as a nation, and they're doing something about it for the sake of our future," McConnell added. "They're making their voices heard. And they've succeeded in changing the debate here in Washington from how to grow government to how to shrink it."
The senator learned about tea party power in his own backyard last year when the movement's candidate, now-Sen. Rand Paul, won the GOP nomination over one that McConnell had endorsed. Then, in deference to the tea party's demand for a ban on so-called earmarks, McConnell reversed years of unapologetic resistance to such a policy and lined up with its supporters.
Lest lawmakers forget the lessons of 2010 as they face an April 8 deadline for the current budget, the rally Thursday is aimed at reminding them.
"We're still here," Meckler said.