Activists On The Right Sense Their Time Has Come

House Speaker Boehner lost a quarter of his own Republican members Thursday afternoon in the critical vote to fund the government through September. They refused to vote for what would normally be considered historic cuts in the federal budget — and they did so because they believed even deeper cuts were both necessary and possible. That reflects a surging confidence among activists on the right who sense their time has come.

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We just heard how Speaker John Boehner lost a quarter of his Republican members this afternoon in a critical vote to fund the government. They refused to vote for what would normally be considered historic cuts in the federal budget because they believed deeper cuts were necessary and possible.

As NPR's Don Gonyea reports, that reflects a surging confidence among activists on the right who sense that their time has come.

DON GONYEA: For fiscal conservatives, it's been a long time coming, this suddenly intense national focus on government spending, or, as they prefer to put it, on cutting government spending. Alison Fraser is an economist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Ms. ALISON FRASER (Economist, Heritage Foundation): I wish that it had been the nature of the conversation two or three years ago, but I think it is absolutely a victory to have us at this place as a nation where we are talking about making substantive choices and changes.

GONYEA: Now, it's hard to find a House Republican who likes the budget deal struck last week averting a government shutdown. Most held their noses and voted for it today. Many did not. But conservatives of all stripes are intent on going much further in cutting government programs in the 2012 budget.

Keith Hennessey is a former economic advisor to President George W. Bush, now with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Mr. KEITH HENNESSEY (Hoover Institution, Stanford University): I think there is even greater pressure on the speaker to get deeper spending cuts on this bill than there was on the appropriations bill.

GONYEA: The fiercest pressure on Speaker Boehner will come from members of the Tea Party movement. The speaker has often praised the Tea Party. He's said his goals and those of the movement are the same. But Tea Party leaders are giving Boehner less-than-stellar marks for his handling of budget negotiations. Mark Meckler is founder of the group the Tea Party Patriots.

Mr. MARK MECKLER (Founder, Tea Party Patriots): When John Boehner says that there's no daylight between he and the Tea Party, I think that's astounding. It's not correct, and he's got to have his eyes closed if he thinks there's no daylight between he and the Tea Party.

GONYEA: Meckler says the Tea Party is, in fact, driving much of the new emphasis on spending. For proof, he points to the speech President Obama gave yesterday outlining a Democratic plan for reducing the deficit.

Mr. MECKLER: So to see him have to pivot and come out and try and introduce a new plan now, obviously we've had an effect on the president.

GONYEA: In addition to all of this, the amount of debt the U.S. owes is almost at the limit periodically set by Congress. So Congress will soon be asked to raise the debt ceiling again. Economists from both parties say not doing so would be a blow to U.S. credibility in markets around the world and would have a huge negative impact on the economy both short-term and long.

But Amy Kremer, who chairs the group called the Tea Party Express, says the debt limit also presents another opportunity to apply serious pressure on the White House and the speaker.

Ms. AMY KREMER (Chair, Tea Party Express): I don't want to say that we should raise the debt ceiling at all. But if that debt ceiling absolutely has to be raised, there better be some big, bold cuts to go along with it. That's the only way that it should be raised.

GONYEA: There is an urgency when you talk to conservatives about the current debate over spending, a sense that this moment was so long coming that it must be seized lest it slip away in another election or be superseded by some unexpected event. Again, Keith Hennessey of the Hoover Institution.

Mr. HENNESSEY: People know there are only a limited number of legislative opportunities this year and next, where a bill has to become law and where fiscal conservatives may have an opportunity to force some changes to law to be made.

GONYEA: All the same, those who would reduce federal spending and the footprint of government in general know it's best to strike while the iron is hot and to cut while the knife is sharp.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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