Tea Party Pressures GOP To Focus On Spending Cuts

As negotiations on this year's federal budget continue, the Tea Party rallied on the lawn near the Capitol, aiming to buck up Republicans to stand firm for deep cuts. There's one week to go until another potential government shutdown.

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Thirty-three billion dollars is serious money. It's the amount Republicans and Democrats are trying to cut from this year's spending. But it's a fraction of the $100 billion Tea Party members want cut. Some of them held a rally outside the Capitol yesterday to get the GOP's attention. NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: It wasn't a big group - less than 250 people. But they had a big voice.

Ms. JENNY BETH MARTIN (National Coordinator, Tea Party Patriots): All around this country we want substance and meaningful spending cuts.

CORNISH: That's Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots.

Ms. MARTIN: We don't want symbolism, that Congress can turn around and pat themselves on the back and say, oh, we cut more than we've ever cut before.

CORNISH: What Martin and the Tea Party Patriots group also had was the attention of the cameras and conservative lawmakers. Nearly a dozen clamored for time on the stage, including freshman House Republican Allen West of Florida.

Representative ALLEN WEST (Republican, Florida): They continue to ask me about, well, why won't you compromise, why won't you negotiate? Well, let me tell you something: Abraham Lincoln said very succinctly, he said plant your feet in the right place and then stand firm. And so I'm going to be standing firm.

(Soundbite of cheering)

CORNISH: West was one of 54 Republicans who voted against the last stopgap bill aimed at preventing a government shutdown. And it was obvious that this crowd, which was at one point chanting "cut it or shut it," was of a similar mind on the issue of compromise and spending cuts.

Mr. DON BALLANTYNE: Compromise may fit sometimes, but when you're talking freedom, it doesn't fit.

Ms. DEBORAH MUNOZ: I don't know what people mean by compromise. Is that a euphemism for caving in and saying, OK, you know, we'll give you this, we'll give you that, but you can keep spending? No, it's like we need to stop this.

Mr. RALPH BENKO: I think that it's so out of scale that anything that they're talking about by a compromise doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the cuts that are begging to be made.

CORNISH: That's Don Ballantyne of San Diego, Deborah Munoz of Woodbridge, Virginia, and Ralph Benko of Gaithersburg, Maryland. All three said Republicans needed to take a harder line and get deeper spending cuts through. But inside the Capitol building, compromise is in the works.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): Again, Mr. President, we've agreed on a number.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): There is no agreement on a set of numbers.

CORNISH: Well, almost. That's Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner. Right now their appropriators are combing over the government's current operating expenses in search of nearly 23 billion in cuts.

That plus the 10 billion already passed in the last few weeks of temporary measures would mean a final tally of $33 billion down from current spending levels. Again, Senator Reid.

Senator REID: We haven't agreed how to get to that number. I hope an agreement can be reached as how do we get to that number. But it will not come on the backs of middle-class families and the jobs they need. And it will not come if the other side continues to insist on unreasonable Tea Party unrealistic cuts.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, Speaker Boehner said Republicans would fight for as much as they could of the $61 billion in spending cuts the House had passed in February. But he also appeared to temper expectations.

Rep. BOEHNER: We control one-half of one-third of the government here in Washington. We can't impose our will on another body. 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.

CORNISH: There're still loads of details to work out, including what to do about the policy provisions the GOP wants to include in the spending bill, measures de-funding the new health care law, environmental regulations and groups such as Planned Parenthood, and finding a coalition of Republicans and Democrats who will support whatever deal is made. Lawmakers have a week to get the job done before the latest temporary spending bill runs out.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.

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