GOP, Tea Party Part Ways Over Pork

| Wed May 26, 2010 1:16 PM EDT

On Wednesday, House Republicans launched America Speaking Out, a new attempt to create an agenda for congressional candidates running for reelection in the fall. Spearheaded by House Minority Leader John Boehner, the website was designed to solicit input from the public as to what the party's priorities ought to be.

The idea isn't exactly new. Months ago, Tea Party activists essentially did the same thing and came up with their own "Contract From America," modeled after the Contract With America that helped the GOP gain control of Congress in 1994. The Tea Partiers received feedback from nearly half a million people, who voted on the top ten ideas submitted by individuals to the site. The results were released to great fanfare on April 15 at a big Tax Day Tea Party at the Washington Monument.

Since then, the Tea Partiers have been trying to get members of Congress to sign the thing, which includes standard-fare GOP material, such as calls for a balanced budget, lower taxes, and rejecting cap and trade climate legislation. Republican officials have been openly supportive of the contract, lavishing praise on the Tea Partiers for drafting it. Boehner himself even called it "required reading" for conservative politicians. But then he refused to sign.

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While signing the contract might seem like a no-brainer for most Republican lawmakers, especially those seeking to win favor with the discontented grassroots, the Tea Partiers have only secured the signatures of five members: Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), and Reps. Michael McCaul and Pete Olson, Republicans from Texas.

Other GOP legislators have said that they were loath to sign it when their party was cooking up its own crowd-sourcing agenda. But looking at the new GOP site, it seems clear that the official Republican venture is mostly a do-over of the Tea Party project. You might wonder why the Republicans bothered spending money to reinvent the wheel. One answer may lie in one item on the Tea Party platform. The document calls for a ban on earmarks, the much-loathed tool used by members of Congress to direct money to pet projects in their districts and states. Republican Tim Burns, who was running in a special election to fill the seat of the late Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, explicitly told the Tea Party activists that while he supported the Contract in theory, signing an anti-pork pledge in that district would be the end of his candidacy. (He lost anyway.) Another member who shall remain nameless actually crossed out the anti-pork pledge and then signed the Contract, according to a Contract organizer.

One leading Tea Party activist suspects that there's no way Boehner and company will come up with a new version of the Contract With America that calls for a ban on pork, no matter how many people recommend it on their new website. Robin Stublen, a Florida Tea Party leader who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the GOP's effort, notes that Republicans have changed the name of their enterprise. When GOP leaders first announced what they were up to, they were promising to create a new "Commitment to America." But that name has been replaced by America Speaking Out. "I'll tell you why they changed it. Because they can’t keep a commitment," says Stublen, who is furious with Boehner. "If he’d been listening, he’d a signed the Contract [from America]. It’s the epitome of arrogance."

The primary organizers behind the Tea Party contract, though, have offered a more conciliatory response to the GOP’s new project. The Tea Party activists have already submitted all of the ideas in their Contract to the GOP'S America Speaking Out website, and they were calling on supporters to vote on these proposals. A note on the Contract website says:

We are thrilled that GOP leaders in Washington have heard that call and are taking steps to re-engage with the American people. Yes, the Contract from America initiative has already been listening to Americans since last year. We have debated thousands of ideas. We have logged hundreds of thousands of votes. But far more important is the role we will continue to play, however large or small, in helping build strong coalitions of like-minded Americans that will work together to restore and rebuild this great nation.

Ryan Hecker, a Houston Tea Party leader and the brains behind the Contract, says he's quite happy that the GOP has embraced so much of the Tea Party idea. He doesn't see the GOP’s new initiative as a competing effort. "It would be great if the RNC and the Democratic Party supported the effort entirely. I have no problem with this becoming mainstream," he says. He adds that the success of the Tea Party contract has exceeded his wildest expectations: "I'm very honored that Sen. Coburn, who didn’t sign the 1994 Contract [With America] signed ours. It’s good that [Republican politicians] are starting to listen."

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