Tea Party Influence Next Congress Hard To Predict

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Congress returns from its break after midterm elections with the hobbled Democrats seeking to move legislation for the rest of the year. The 2010 midterm elections upset the balance of power and, come January, the Republicans will control the House of Representatives, there will be numerous inexperienced politicians and the heavy influence of the tea party to contend with. Host Michel Martin speaks with Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, Republican strategist Ron Christie, and NPR correspondent Corey Dade.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

On the program today, we take a closer look at the Kanye West, George W. Bush dustup. We wanted to ask, was Kanye really calling the president a racist? And what if he was? Is the R word really such a big stick in American political life and for whom? That is later.

But first, politics post the midterm elections. Congress has now returned from a bruising midterm election that upended the balance of power. As you probably know by now, President Obama's part, the Democrats, have lost their hold on the House of Representatives. In the Senate, their majority is substantially narrowed.

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans are not only looking forward to flexing regained political muscle, but also to the presence of new Tea Party-backed members who say they will be as tough on the Republicans to hold onto core principles, as they will be on the Democrats. All of this should make for interesting times as the Congress attempts to wrap up this session.

We wanted to learn more so we've decided to call upon Matt Kibbe. He is the president and CEO of the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks. It's a grassroots organization that worked closely with the Tea Party in the past election cycle. It advocates limited government, lower taxes and, as they say, more freedom.

Also with us, Republican strategist Ron Christie. He was an aide to former president George W. Bush. And also with us, NPR's Corey Dade, a national correspondent on the digital news team. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Mr. MATT KIBBE (President and CEO, FreedomWorks): Thanks for having me.

Mr. RON CHRISTIE (Founder and President, Christie Strategies): Good day, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Corey, let's start with you. What are the Democratic leaders, for the weeks that they have left as the party leaders, saying that their priorities are for this lame duck session?

COREY DADE: Well, Michel, for starters, it's whether to extend the Bush era tax cut. The president has said he's willing to compromise on that, but is going to hold the line on whether to extend a permanent tax cut for the highest earning Americans. The other issue is whether to raise the debt ceiling, which would help the government stay in business, stay open for business, that is.

And, of course, repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which would allow gays to serve openly in the military. And that's going to find its way to a fight in the Senate for sure.

MARTIN: A lot of other people are also interested in immigration reform, can we safely assume, nonstarter?

DADE: It's a nonstarter. It's not on the table, in part, because the Democrats may not have the votes in this lame duck session to make it happen. But beyond that they know that that is something will be an immediate target to be overturned when the Republicans take over in January.

MARTIN: And what about appointments? There are a lot of appointments that have yet to be acted upon. A lot of advocacy groups are calling this a crisis, particularly on the judicial side and they point out at a comparable point in both President Clinton's presidency and President George W. Bush's presidency that many more appointments had been moved forward at this point. Dead in the water? Any progress possible there?

DADE: This has been going on, as you said, for three different presidential terms and it doesn't seem to have any quick resolution at this point. I think that the least controversial appointments may find their way through the Senate. But on the main, that doesn't seem to be a priority right now for either party.

MARTIN: Matt Kibbe, what are the priorities for the newcomers, even though they haven't taken their seats yet? But your group and the Tea Party, more broadly, is associated with about two-thirds of the newcomers coming in. So, what about for the people who were already there? It wasn't for a lack of interest, I would assume, in these incumbents, but as a mater of sort of trying to, you know, advance the agenda, your focus was on the newcomers. But that's a pretty big group. So, what are your priorities for the incumbents and do you feel that you have any say over what they do?

Mr. KIBBE: Well, when you think about what we call the Tea Party Movement, it's not a political party, it's not a formal organization. It's really just a set of issues and values that I think shifted the electorates and all candidates, Republicans and Democrats, to a new center that focused on fiscal responsibility, reigning in the debt and the deficit, and opposition to President Obama's government health care plan. So I think the priorities have to be in line with those things.

You can look at a document that virtually every one of these candidates signed on to, the Contract from America, to see where they're going to come from, how they're going to govern. And by the way, it's not terribly inconsistent with the principles laid out by the incoming House Republican leadership.

MARTIN: Okay. So, what are your priorities, then?

Mr. KIBBE: Well, first thing, and I think that that ceiling is going to be a test of this. The first thing we have to do is come up with some credible, plausible spending cuts that actually take a whack at our $12 trillion debt. And I don't know when exactly the debt ceiling comes up, but that'll be a test for the new members because they certainly are not going to simply rubber stamp another extension of the debt without some serious conversation about what we do about that.

The other, I think, is going to be a very early vote in the next Congress that repeals Obamacare. The wholesale repeal of it, that will probably get through the House and it will sit in the Senate and not move.

MARTIN: Talk to me, though, if you would, about the whole question of a stand-alone vote on the debts. And for Corey, is that actually going to happen with the Democratic leadership put forward a stand-alone vote on the debt ceiling?

DADE: It remains to be seen. It is certainly something that has to happen, in part, just so the government can continue to operate. So it's actually going to test the Tea Party-backed candidates that are currently in the House for this lame duck session. But it's definitely going to have to come to a floor vote probably.

MARTIN: Ron Christie, will you talk about that? Putting your sort of hat on and being in the position of being in the George W. Bush White House at a crucial point like this after there's been an election. You've got a lame duck session, you've got your priorities as an administration, and how do you handle a period like this?

Mr. CHRISTIE: It's a very transformative time, Michel. And perhaps the most applicable experience that I had was being in the House of Representatives and being in the minority party after the election in 1994 and heading into the majority status. And it's very difficult. It's trying to align priorities that you campaigned on and you campaigned and you made promises to the American people that you would fulfill.

And it's also dealing with the outgoing party in power. In this case, John Boehner, Eric Cantor working with outgoing speaker, Pelosi, and the majority leader, Steny Hoyer, to ensure a smooth and seamless transition of power. And so, what we're going to find with this current lame duck session is an interesting contrast in styles.

Obviously the American people spoke and they repudiated much of what had happened in the previous Congress. But the question remains, will the outgoing majority hear the voices of the American people or will they use these next couple of days, and perhaps into early next week, to try one last attempt to fulfill some of their original promises?

MARTIN: Well, they were elected by the same people who elected the people who were coming in to replace them, right?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Indeed.

MARTIN: So, how did they, you know, mediate that? Do the newcomers coming in, there's a sort of large group of freshmen, many of whom campaigned on, you know, a very distinct message, you know, do people care what they think coming in? Or how do you handle that yourself? How do the members handle that as individuals?

Mr. CHRISTIE: They do. And I think there's no question that the same people who swept the Democrats to majority status over the last two elections have also spoken. And those voices need to be heard. And with the freshman member orientation getting under way yesterday in Washington, D.C. and continuing through this week, these new members heard the message loud and clear, which is, frankly, the acronym for the Tea Party, which many people believe that they're taxed enough already.

And the incoming mandate, or the incoming challenge that these new members are set to fulfill is trying to reduce the size and the scope of the federal government while being responsive to the American people that elected them to office. And I think that's the major distinction between the previous election and this is that these new members were elected. They were embodying the voice and the spirit of their constituents who felt that the people in Washington were simply out of touch with their necessary actions that need to be taken for the government.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're talking about the return of Congress after the midterm elections. We're talking about the lame duck session that's just in front of -we're also looking ahead to the Congressmen who come in in January and asking whether if one kind of affects the other. I'm speaking with NPR's Corey Dade, Republican strategist Ron Christie. He was a former aide in the George W. Bush White House, and Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks.

You know, Matt Kibbe, what about the Minnesota Republican Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann - entered a bid for chairmanship of the Republican House conference. It's a number four position. She couldn't match the endorsements of her opponent, which is Jeb Hensarling of Texas.

How do you interpret what happened there? The fact that there is not a person who is identifiable or embraced by the Tea Party in the leadership. When there was the opportunity to - how do you interpret what happened there?

Mr. KIBBE: Well, that's an interesting case because Jeb Hensarling is every bit as fiscally conservative as Michele Bachmann is. So it probably wasn't a good test of the so-called Tea Party legislator versus an establishing one. Jeb Hensarling was one of the very first Republicans to step up against the George W. Bush administration's Wall Street bailout. So he had his own street cred with Tea Partiers and I think it was kind of a win-win for our agenda in that particular race.

MARTIN: And I get - I take your point in that. But there are some people who look at that and say, but that's an example of why some people in the Tea Party don't get it. They're inexperienced - why would she pursue that position anyway when Jeb Hensarling was, as you put it, right on the issues that she cared about the most. So, why take him on? Why even have that fight? And there are some people who would look at that as an example of why this group might not be as effective as they'd like to be, because they don't get it.

Mr. KIBBE: Well, you know, we say again and again that the Tea Party doesn't have any leaders and we don't necessarily have designated leaders in the Congress and we don't have designated leaders outside the concert. It's the issues and the agenda and making progress on that agenda. And that's always an open question because I would hope that all congressmen embrace that agenda. And if they want to become Tea Partiers in name, God bless them.

MARTIN: How are you going to hold these members accountable whom you have endorsed and embraced? What's the plan?

Mr. KIBBE: Well, this is the first time - I also work through the Republican transition in 1994 as a Hill staffer. What's so different about the incoming class is, one, the size of the freshman block, which is clearly dominated by the ideas of the Tea Party Movement. And the second is the idea that there's this outside force that is - organizes, connected, is networked on Facebook and in their local communities that will be there to support these young legislators as they drive the agenda. So you have what we call an inside/outside gang.

MARTIN: Which is true, which is also true of the left in the last election and the cycle before that. I mean the group like moveon.org is one that a lot of people looked to as having, I don't want to say, created, but it perfected this idea of kind of the outside group sort of pressuring the inside group. But then judging by the results for this Congress, a lot of people said that the left was discouraged and that's why they didn't come out in the numbers.

Do you look at that past history as a cautionary tale in any way, Matt Kibbe, for your side? It's a very different set of issues.

Mr. KIBBE: It is a cautionary tale and we very much looked with envy and respect at the organizing for Obama grassroots campaign, which was cutting edge at its time. But it was still very dependent on a charismatic personality. This is a leaderless movement. So it's built on ideas, not a person like Michele Bachmann.

MARTIN: We're going to continue this conversation. Our guests are going to stay with us. That was just Matt Kibbe. He's president of FreedomWorks. That's a conservative grassroots organization closely identified with the Tea Party. NPR's Corey Dade, he's a national correspondent for us, and Ron Christie, Republican strategist. Please stay with us.

I'm Michel Martin. We'll be back to you in just a few minutes from TELL ME MORE on NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes we will try to fill you in on the extraordinary happenings in Myanmar, where a long-detained democracy activist is free and the military leadership is allowing her supporters more leeway than many imagined, even last week. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we're looking at Congress. We'll talk about that for a few more minutes. The lame duck Congress, which returned to Washington today, and the new look Congress that includes a sizeable Tea Party contingent come January of 2011. And in fact, busloads of incoming freshmen and freshwomen members of Congress were making their way around Washington, D.C. today to get their bearings, looking ahead to January.

And, but on the Hill, there's also some news, the ethics trial of Harlem representative, Charles Rangel, kicked off. And representative Rangel complained that the process should not continue, because he can no longer afford a lawyer. And we wanted to talk more about that, too, with Matt Kibbe. He's president and CEO of the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks. It's closely identified with many of the Tea Party candidates who prevailed in the recent elections.

Also with us, Republican strategist Ron Christie. He was an aide to former President George W. Bush. He now runs Christie Strategies and he's also the author of a couple of books. And also with us, NPR's Corey Dade, a national correspondent on the additional news team.

Corey, just tell us a little bit more, if you would, about this Charlie Rangel situation. Many people will remember, he's been - he's meeting before the House Ethics Committee on ethics charges. We don't have time to go into all the details. But I did want to ask if this trial is casting somewhat of appall over the Congress in this session now coming back. And do you happen to know what's going to happen next? He apparently walked out of the proceeding because he didn't have a lawyer.

DADE: He made his argument that he needed a continuance so that he could go find some legal defense. The idea that he had was to establish a legal defense fund so that he can raise money for his legal case. He has run out of money to pay for a lawyer and he can't take pro bono legal work because that would be considered a gift, which is a violation of House rules. So, his argument to the Ethics Committee was that he's betwixt in between. Give him a shot to make an adequate defense. They didn't accept that.

MARTIN: What's the worst that can happen to him? He can't be expelled from Congress.

DADE: That is the worst that can happen in the panoply of options. But it's very unlikely. More likely is that he'll be censured. That would be probably the most severe case. Thirteen counts, too many counts to overlook or to just sweep under the rug. And he has admitted that he was certainly complicit in it, but he argues that it wasn't his intention to be dishonest. It was negligence. In some cases, he even calls himself just being stupid and not dotting his I's and crossing his T's.

MARTIN: Well, this has to do with tax - it was to do with tax issues related to an apartment that he used as an office and also another property in Puerto Rico, a vacation property. But does he face any consequences apart from the Congress? Does he face any criminal charges potentially or charges outside of the Congress?

DADE: I think it remains to be seen how much tax issues would be the case. I think the bigger issue is whether of not he stood - he gained any personal enrichment. And that remains to be seen. There's not a legal case that's been built to that. So it appears at this point that he is not, sort of, in the criminal eye.

MARTIN: And, finally, we did want to talk about this, I'm going to go to Ron Christie for that. The leadership, it seems to be said, the Democrats seemed to have worked out a deal that Nancy Pelosi will very likely keep her position as leader of the new Democratic minority and it was worked out that Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn resolved their differences over who will have the next seat -who found a way to keep, sort of, everybody at the table.

Ron Christie, how significant do you think this leadership fight will be in going forward in the next Congress? Does it affect the way people deal with each other?

Mr. CHRISTIE: I think it's very significant and I think it really will have a dramatic impact in the way that people interact with each other. If you look back to Speaker Gingrich when he had first come to power in 1995 and we had launched seats in the subsequent election, actually, we gained a couple of seats, but it wasn't as large as we had hoped, Gingrich had stepped down.

Similarly, speaker, Dennie Hastert, when the Republicans lost their status, Speaker Hastert decided to resign his leadership position and ultimately resigned from the Congress.

And there are many Democrats in the Democratic caucus who are saying, do our elected leaders, the top three, really understand the ramifications of what happened? And wouldn't it be better for us to position ourselves to reclaim the majority in two years if we had new leadership? And you've seen a conservative member from North Carolina, Heath Shuler, the former quarterback of the Washington Redskins, announce that if someone had not stepped forward by the end of the week to challenge Nancy Pelosi to be the Democratic leader, that he would do so.

So at a time when they're transitioning out of power, I think the last thing that the Democrats need right now is fighting and squabbling amongst the ranks. And I fear that if Pelosi remains as the Democratic leader, that's exactly what we'll have.

MARTIN: And Matt Kibbe, final thought from you about how the likely new leadership, John Boehner, the likely new speaker viewed by the people who are coming in.

Mr. KIBBE: Well, if - I think there's common ground right now. You look at the leadership's pledge agenda, compared to the Contract for America and it's quite similar. It is focused on fiscal issues. And if the Democrats do choose to keep Nancy Pelosi, it allows the Republican leadership to not only hold the right, but hold the center as well because she has brought them - the Democrats -extreme to the left, and I think that's a big mistake if they do it.

MARTIN: Okay. To be continued. Matt Kibbe is the president and CEO of the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks. It's closely identified with the Tea Party Movement and many of their candidates whom they endorsed will be coming to Washington in January. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with Corey Dade. He's a national correspondent for NPR's digital news team. And with us from New York, Ron Christie, he's a Republican strategist, the author of a number of books and a former aide in the White House of President George W. Bush. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Mr. KIBBE: Thank you.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Thanks, everyone.

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