A Report Card For The Tea Party

Congress watcher Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, gives the Tea Party a report card for the year. Ornstein talks with host Audie Cornish about GOP dynamics in the House and Senate and how relationships are beginning to fray.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

House Republicans had a rough week as well, as Congress struggled against the kind of gridlock on Capitol Hill that marks the reign of Newt Gingrich as speaker in the '90s. House lawmakers backed down from a confrontation over preserving the payroll tax cut extension. The bill passed but liberals and conservatives alike called the ordeal apolitical fumble for the GOP. House Speaker John Boehner seemed to admit as much.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: May not have been the politically the smartest thing in the world. But I'm going to tell you what. I think our members waged a good fight. We were able to come to an agreement. We were able to fix what came out of the Senate.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, Senate majority leader Harry Reid felt his body of Congress was vindicated, and had a message for, quote, "new members" - that is, freshman Tea Party-backed lawmakers.

SENATOR HARRY REID: I would hope especially, I repeat, the new members of the House will understand that legislation is the art of compromise, consensus building; not trying to push your way through on issues that you don't have the support of the American people.

CORNISH: We're going to look back at the Tea Party's year in Congress. And to do that, we're joined now by Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

Welcome, Norm.

NORM ORNSTEIN: Very good to be with you.

CORNISH: Let's run through some of the legislative debates that turned into struggles this year. We had the bill funding the federal disaster assistance for hurricane victims; multiple threats of government shut down throughout the year; of course, the supercommittee for deficit reduction; and the debate over raising the debt ceiling.

What grade would you give Tea Party freshmen this year on their report card?

ORNSTEIN: Well, if their goal was to disrupt Washington and try and keep government from functioning - even in its basic levels - you got to give them a B or a B-plus. If the goal is, as Harry Reid alluded to, governing - actually trying to make things happen in a constructive fashion - we're down in the D-minus level, and that's being generous in the Christmas season.

CORNISH: At the same time, Norm, I remember being at protests with Tea Party activists and there was a real feeling that they wanted to send lawmakers to Congress who would put a halt to all of what they considered over legislating by the previous Congress. So, you know, I was really surprised to see the way the Wall Street Journal or Karl Rove or these folks were coming out against the move by the House here.

ORNSTEIN: Well, what Karl Rove and the Wall Street Journal editorial writers - John McCain, Mitch McConnell and so many others - were saying is basically pick your fights. And this is a really stupid place to pick a fight. Their goal is more a political one of trying to make sure that they can both defeat Barack Obama but also win a majority in the Senate and hold a majority in the House.

Early on, the kind of push from these Tea Party members, to basically say to the president: We'll bring the temple down around all of our heads unless you give in, had worked. And this time it didn't. And a lot of the old pros in this process didn't want to stick with it.

CORNISH: So, how does this change the atmosphere for these lawmakers in 2012 and for Tea Party activists in 2012?

ORNSTEIN: Well, the first thing to remember here is we're going to be back to the bargaining table. And if anything, the Tea Party freshmen are going to be more intent on holding the line and getting a better deal if this is going to go for the full year.

Boehner's headaches are in over. And for many of these freshmen, some of them are going to divert from the path of saying take no prisoners, no compromise. The rest of them will hold onto it. And it'll be very interesting to see what kind of damage there is in the end to them and their election chances, as well.

CORNISH: Norm, what does this mean for 2012 in an election year?

ORNSTEIN: There's no doubt that these forces have had a huge impact on the presidential contest. Almost every Republican candidate moved over to the kind of rhetoric and policy positions taken by the Tea Party freshmen. But with all of that you could look at this debacle that the House Republicans faced over the payroll tax cut and say that one of the big winners here - besides President Obama in the short run - is Mitt Romney.

Republicans now are growing very nervous and that means the desire to have the best nominee who could win in an unfavorable circumstance is going to be heightened.

CORNISH: What kind of effect essentially did the Occupy protest movement have on the ability of these Tea Party-backed freshmen to continue to push their agenda in Congress?

ORNSTEIN: I actually think that what the Occupy Movement did was to give President Obama much more traction as he framed this issue, between the 99 percent and the 1 percent. That was something that the Tea Party caucus couldn't handle very easily. And they found themselves on the wrong side of their own, I think, emotional involvement by standing so firm against taxing the rich that they lost sight of where the zeitgeist was, and it hurt them.

CORNISH: Norman Ornstein, he's a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Norm, thanks so much for talking with us.

ORNSTEIN: Oh, my pleasure.

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