For the newly empowered Republicans, the budget fight was supposed to be about the numbers: slashing government spending, bringing down the deficit, and restoring the country to fiscal sanity. But a government shutdown now appears to hinge on the GOP's decision to slash subsidies for gynecological exams and local funding for abortions in the District of Columbia, as I reported on Thursday evening. It's a replay of the fight over the Affordable Care Act that happened almost exactly a year ago, when anti-abortion Democrats blocked the bill over abortion funding issues.
The showdown should put to rest the notion that tea party-backed Republicans simply doesn't care about social issues. Since last year's elections, tea party organizers have tried to insist that the grassroots movement cares most about fiscal issues. "People didn’t come out into the streets to protest gay marriage or abortion," FreedomWorks' Brendan Steinhauser told Politico last month. The Christian Right, likewise, has expressed concern that their issues would be left on the backburner. "There's a libertarian streak in the tea party movement that concerns me as a cultural conservative," said the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer. "The tea party movement needs to insist that candidates believe in the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage."
Well, these social conservatives seem to have little to worry about under the new GOP regime. Even if the tea party activists "in the streets" want the Congress to focus on fiscal issues, they've succeeded in electing the same old Republicans with the same agendas. Tea party heroes like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) haven't abandoned their anti-abortion crusades. "Dems to force shutdown & stop troop funding unless taxpayers forced to fund abortions in DC," DeMint tweeted on Thursday night. Now that the tea party has helped put (or keep) them in power, they have full rein to push an agenda that pleases social conservatives and the Christian right—and use these issues to gain leverage over the Democrats. Whether the GOP's tea party supporters—and independent voters—will be happy about this development is another question altogether.