A Tea Party Hero's Reputation Changes In Florida

In the debate over raising the debt ceiling, some Tea Party lawmakers have faced a dilemma. They don't want the country to default on its bills, but risk backlash if they vote on legislation that appears to go against their principles. Rep. Allen West of Florida, a favorite of the movement, now faces such scrutiny. The congressman's vote to raise the ceiling is drawing ire, and some support, back home.

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And we don't have a full sense of how members of the Tea Party movement will respond to this deal. Even before the agreement, some Republican lawmakers faced the wrath of the Tea Party. Lawmakers who prompted widespread fury across the country for refusing to compromise also prompted Tea Party fury for compromising too much.

NPR's Greg Allen reports on one such lawmaker, Florida Republican Allen West.

GREG ALLEN: Even before he was elected to Congress last November, Allen West was drawing national attention. A retired Army lieutenant colonel with an easy manner and military bearing, he connected with Tea Party supporters in his Florida district and nationally. In the House of Representatives he's emerged as one of the spokesmen in the Republican freshman class.

But he also has an independent streak. An African-American, he's the only Republican who's a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. And last week he broke away from some of his Tea Party supporters and conservative House colleagues in endorsing a debt limit deal brought forward by House Speaker John Boehner. West was forced to defend that decision in a conference call with constituents.

Representative ALLEN WEST (Republican, Florida): And it takes five miles to turn an aircraft carrier around. But I can tell you this, that we are starting that motion right now. And if there are those that believe that we are not doing enough, then that aircraft carrier's going to be dead in the water.

ALLEN: West said although the plan he supported had only about three-quarters of what he wanted, a compromise was necessary to prevent a government default. By the next day, some national Tea Party groups had labeled West a defector and were threatening to back conservative challengers against him in next year's primary. This is what he had to say about that on conservative commentator Laura Ingraham's radio talk show.

Rep. WEST: One minute they're saying I'm their Tea Party hero, and what, three, four days later I'm a Tea Party defector? You know, that kind of schizophrenia, I'm not going to, you know, get involved in it.

ALLEN: If it's schizophrenia, it's not confined just to a few national Tea Party groups.

Mr. EVERETT WILKINSON (Founder, South Florida Tea Party): And I'm disappointed with Allen West. There are some members that are very upset with him right now, that felt that he should've held out longer, you know, for some kind of balanced budget amendment.

ALLEN: Everett Wilkinson is the founder of the South Florida Tea Party, an umbrella group with many local affiliates. Wilkinson says 20,000 people receive his email newsletter. He discounts talk about a possible primary challenge to West. He's surveyed his members and says even those upset with the congressman don't want to see him challenged in the primary. Wilkinson says some other freshman conservatives waited until Boehner added the promise of a vote on a balanced budget amendment before getting on board. He says that's the kind of compromise the Tea Party will take.

Mr. WILKINSON: I don't think the Tea Party considers compromise a dirty word. I think as far as selling out and not moving forward as far as securing a policy that is fiscally sound, absolutely. That is what we're trying to accomplish.

ALLEN: But Wilkinson doesn't speak for all the Tea Party groups in Allen West's district. Another group, the Palm Beach County Tea Party, supports West's decision. Although as founder Pam Wohlschlegel says...

Ms. PAM WOHLSCHLEGEL (Founder, Palm Beach County Tea Party): He was probably a little premature in announcing it, and so he got a lot of flak.

ALLEN: Wohlschlegel's group recently split off from Wilkinson's South Florida Tea Party because of personalities but also because of policy. Wohlschlegel's new Palm Beach County Tea Party is closer to the state Republican Party and firmly in Allen West's corner. He's speaking at one of their group's meetings later this month. Wohlschlegel says in Florida, as elsewhere, the Tea Party isn't represented by a single ideology.

Ms. WOHLSCHLEGEL: I consider myself very fiscally conservative and socially moderate. And then there are the people that are extremely, extremely right-wing. I think they're a very small portion that are saying, OK, it's no compromise and die or nothing else. You know, it's my way or the highway.

ALLEN: Wohlschlegel says it's important to be realistic and that Tea Party members will have to accept some compromise or go nowhere.

Everett Wilkinson has a slightly different view on what it will take for the Tea Party to be successful in changing Washington. He says Allen West and other members of Congress will be held accountable vote by vote.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

MONTAGNE: And we're keeping you up to date on the debt ceiling deal here at MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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