John Boehner's Tea Party Tiff

The GOP minority leader worked hard to woo conservative activists—but now he's having commitment issues.

| Fri Apr. 30, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Perhaps no Republican politician has been quite so eager to bring the Tea Partiers into the GOP fold as House minority leader John Boehner. At the Conservative Political Action Convention in February, Boehner announced, “We're going to listen to the Tea Party movement. While the other side is busy mocking the Tea Party movement, we're going to listen to them, we're going to walk amongst them, we're going to stand with them." With such professions of solidarity, Boehner appeared to be one of the Tea Partiers' biggest fans—that is, until they asked him to put his support in writing.

The latest squabble between the Tea Partiers and Boehner grew from an attempt by a national Tea Party umbrella group to resurrect the 1994 Contract With America—a conservative legislative agenda that former House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich deployed to launch the Republican revolution and take over the House. This time, the Tea Partiers wanted the people to write the contract, not the politicians. So they spent months soliciting ideas from the public online, and then submitted the best ones to a vote that garnered more than 400,000 participants. On Tax Day, the Tea Party Patriots unveiled their new "Contract From America," a list of 10 priorities they want candidates and members of Congress to commit to.

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Their manifesto includes many familiar GOP talking points—permanently extending the estate tax cuts, repealing health care reform, balancing the budget, and reining in government spending. But there are also a few new suggestions, such as a ban on earmarks. The Tea Partiers' number one action item is a requirement that all bills specify which part of the Constitution gives Congress the authority to make such a law.

Tea Party activists nationwide are calling on members of Congress to sign the contract. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) did almost immediately. A handful of Texas congressmen plan to follow suit on Friday. But despite Boehner's enthusiastic words about the Tea Partiers, he has refused to sign the document. Instead, he released a statement patting the activists on the back for their amateur effort at national agenda-setting. He said, "This document is just the latest example of how the Tea Party movement has done this nation a great service by giving Americans who believe their government is no longer listening to them a platform to come together that transcends party and ideology.  Republican elected officials must continue to listen to them, stand with them, and walk among them. Every lawmaker—Republican, Democrat, and Independent—should consider the 'Contract from America' required reading and heed its call for a return to the principles on which our nation was founded."

But the Tea Party organizers didn't want Boehner to encourage people to read the contract. They wanted him to sign it. Two weeks later, Boehner still hadn’t touched the document, and Tea Partiers suspect they know why. Boehner and company are working on a contract of their own—to be launched in September to kick off the midterm congressional elections in earnest.

The GOP House leadership has dubbed its project the "Commitment to America," and like the Tea Partiers, they plan to solicit input from the public. A few of the Tea Partiers immediately suspected that Republicans were ripping off their idea or didn’t want to give publicity to a rival set of principles. Apparently unaware that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Robin Stublen, a Florida Tea Party leader involved with the Contract From America, recently posted an open letter to Boehner on his blog, writing:

When you and your fellow Republicans were elected and sworn into office, you made a commitment to the voters in your district and to the citizens of this country. That commitment was to hold true to conservative values. You failed. While in control of the House and the Senate, Republicans increased the deficit, the debt and the size of government programs. That is not conservative principals. [sic] That is more of the same. Now you want us to believe you have seen the light and will prove it with the Commitment to America. No thanks.

Ryan Hecker, a Houston lawyer who’s on the board of the Houston Tea Party Society and until recently, a board member of Tea Party Patriots, has been the driving force behind the contract. (He got some help from FreedomWorks, the conservative advocacy group headed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey.) Hecker is perplexed that Boehner wouldn't sign the contract. “I think it's a powerful message. It’s an open transparent process. Nearly half a million votes were cast,” he says. “That’s something you’d think that candidates and elected officials would sign on to."

This week, I put the question directly to Boehner's office. Why hadn't the minority leader signed the Tea Partiers contract? Alas, Boehner's spokesman would only send me the link to Boehner’s Tax Day statement about the project. He then referred me to Brendan Buck, the spokesman for the Commitment to America project, which is  being overseen by GOP deputy chief whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)

Buck said he didn’t know why Boehner hadn't signed, but he gushed about what conservative activists had accomplished. "We totally are on board with what they did," he said. That doesn’t mean, of course, that his boss—or any other GOP leader—will actually sign their agenda. Buck explained that the GOP's project is designed to reach a bigger audience by including town hall meetings, not just online contributions. And while he didn't say it outright, it's clear that GOP's agenda may be slightly different than that of the Tea Partiers. "We just want to have as big and open process as we can," Buck said, while making sure to add, "The Tea Party people will have a seat at the table."