Dana Milbank
Opinion writer May 9, 2011

Poor Paul Ryan and John Boehner.

Ryan, chairman of the House budget committee, proposed budget cuts so severe his plan has been described as a suicide note. Boehner, the House speaker, rushed the budget to passage before Republicans grasped the potential fallout from their vote to replace Medicare.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Yet even this was not enough for the tea party.

On Monday morning, tea party leaders from around the country gathered at the National Press Club for a news conference denouncing Boehner and Ryan in terms normally reserved for that most loathsome of creatures, the Democrat.

“Instead of a fighter for U.S. taxpayers, Mr. Boehner has been a surrenderist, if that’s a word,” proclaimed William Temple, chairman of the Tea Party Founding Fathers. “It seems House Speaker John Maynard Boehner and his fellow RINOs — Republicans In Name Only — like to spend other peoples’ money just as much as the Democrats.”

Temple mocked the “tearful” speaker and vowed to give him “something really to cry about” this fall: “As the GOP primary season opens, if House freshmen and others elected by the tea party caved to Obama, we will find replacements for them.”

The threats carried extra oomph because the event was endorsed by Rep. Michele Bachmann, (R-Minn.), tea party doyenne and presidential hopeful. After the event, Bachmann’s office circulated a statement telling the tea party activists “I hear you and I agree.” She backed their call to reject an increase in the debt ceiling without undoing health-care reform, and she said her colleagues had “squandered” an opportunity to cut spending.

Bachmann’s colleagues won’t be pleased with some of the sentiments expressed by her tea party friends. Joseph Farah of WorldNetDaily, a conservative Web site, accused Boehner of “capitulating to business-as-usual in Washington.”

The Rev. C.L. Bryant preached: “We send this message to John Boehner and every RINO on Capitol Hill, that we did not get you the gavel of the House of Representatives to play nice with the liberal Democrats.”

As for Ryan, economist Brian Wesbury asked, “What is he? Is he for bigger government?” Wesbury suggested that Republicans should show some “adult kind of behavior.”

This was a curious request coming from a group that included two men wearing tricorn hats and colonial costumes. Temple had a feather in his hat, carried a 5-foot musket and, without explanation, switched to a Scottish accent during the news conference. Next to him was a man dressed up as George Washington who read a 215-year-old passage.

Inconveniently, the tea party activists held their televised news conference just hours before Boehner spoke to the Economic Club of New York in hopes of convincing Wall Street that Republicans don’t wish to throw the nation into default. The juxtaposition was a reminder of Boehner’s difficult position: Though GOP lawmakers and tea party activists had a common cause last year in opposing all things Obama, they are split over what to do next — in this case, whether or not to cause international chaos by blocking a debt-limit increase.

The splintering goes beyond the fiscal matters that motivated the tea party. Temple and his activists included on their list a demand that Republicans use the debt-limit fight to keep gay soldiers from serving openly in the military. Temple condemned the “effeminization” of the military and opposed “injecting open homosexuality and females into forward-combat roles.”

Another participant, Bob Vander Plaats of the Tea Party National Convention, saw a link between homosexuality and the debt. “When you start going away from core value issues, the ripple effect leads right to economic issues,” he explained.

The good news for Boehner’s Republicans is that the tea party activists are themselves divided. “We’re not, obviously, all in agreement about specific issues,” Wesbury said after the gays-in-the-military diversion. This means that the activists may not have the grass-roots power to make good on their threats, and that lawmakers may be able to risk the tea partyers’ wrath.

The men from the tea party accurately pointed out that Ryan’s budget plan (Vander Plaats labeled it a “limp-noodle”) would add trillions of dollars to the debt. But Boehner and Ryan aren’t about to take up the tea party’s proposed solutions, including: cutting discretionary spending by “at least half,” making immediate cuts to Medicare, and having monthly votes on debt-limit increases so more such requirements can be imposed.

If House Republicans ignore such demands and raise the debt limit, Temple said, “we’re going to run candidates against them in their own districts.”

Will Republicans defy a man with a 5-foot-long musket?

danamilbank@washpost.com