By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 9:31 PM
South Carolina tea party activist Sunny O'Donovan plans to travel to Washington in January to personally witness the swearing-in of her new congressman, Jeff Duncan, who was elected with the backing of several tea party groups. On that day, O'Donovan will shift from being an enthusiastic supporter to an eager constituent with a long wish list.
"What I'd really like to see is the national Department of Education abolished and some plans for education to be given back to the states," she said. "But the first thing is to permanently install the Bush tax cuts. . . . And repeal the Obama health care - that was ridiculous."
Now that the tea party has matured from a protest movement to a player on Capitol Hill, its grass-roots members are trying to make the transition along with it. But interviews and a Washington Post survey make clear that few in the movement agree on a legislative agenda beyond downsizing government. Even in that area, there are many views; some are demanding radical cuts, while others simply want better management of federal funds.
For tea party activists, the range of opinion could complicate the task of harnessing the energy they created in the campaign. And for the GOP, it could make the challenge of managing the new members of their caucus more difficult.
Toby Marie Walker, a leader of the Waco Tea Party, has applauded the use of federal stimulus money to expand the Interstate 35 bridge in the busy central Texas corridor and wants to see the federal government finish the job. Cut spending elsewhere, she said.
"One of the biggest misconceptions about the tea party movement is that we are anti-government," Walker said. "They think we are anti-tax. No. We are for fiscal responsibility. We understand that we have to pay taxes, and we understand that we have to pay for some of the things the federal government must do."
Julles Rodgers, a member of the Nebraska Tea Party, takes a harder line.
"Taxes, taxes, taxes. Lord, the tax burden we have is out of this world!" said Rodgers, owner of the Liberty Inn motel in Aurora, Neb. "They are killing the economy with the rules and regulations. It's the government telling Detroit how to make cars that made Detroit go belly-up. It's the government telling the mortgage companies how to make loans that caused the housing crisis."
In a recent Washington Post canvass of nearly 650 tea party groups, 24 percent said they were motivated by concern over government spending and the deficit; 20 percent by the size of government; 11 percent by protecting the Constitution; 5 percent by the downturn in the economy; and 4 percent by taxes. Others mentioned immigration, health-care policy and states' rights as concerns.
Eric Wilson, a leader of Kentucky We Surround Them - a tea-party-affiliated group in Georgetown, Ky. - said many tea party members are following issues on Capitol Hill with great interest and will be watching newly elected Republicans closely.
"We didn't embrace the Republican Party," Wilson said. "A lot of Republicans got elected because they were in line with the principles we believe, but they are still on probation.
"What is different this time, as opposed to most movements in the past being driven by just emotion and people getting angry - people came out and started educating themselves. It's a new face of the tea party, a more educated and sophisticated face of the tea party."
Wilson said he wants Washington to "get back to the ancient principles our Founding Fathers set forth" and rein in spending on big social programs. The most extreme in the movement favor privatizing or even eliminating Social Security and Medicare.
Others, like Frank Coughanour, a leader of Palm Beach Freedom Fighters, an affiliate of Tea Party Patriots, say Congress should make no major changes to Social Security.
"The funds that go in to support it come back to the very same people who put it in," he said.
Some tea party supporters said they favor strong opposition to both establishment Republicans and Democrats. No compromise, said Cris Kurtz, a freelance graphic designer who leads the USA Patriots group in Tulsa.
"We are determined and focused on them keeping their campaign promises," Kurtz said. "Any candidate who campaigned and said they would see the Bush tax cuts continued, if they were to vote against it now, our eyes are going to be on them. We are going to fax and e-mail and call."
Looking ahead, newly elected Republicans will have two years to prove their tea party mettle, said Rodgers, the Nebraska activist.
"If these guys don't deliver on their promises, then I expect by 2012 a third party could emerge," she said. "For Republicans . . . it's their last shot. They better perform."