ROCKY MOUNT, Va. – As Republicans and Democrats in Washington pushed their budget negotiations to the brink, the four dozen tea party activists who gathered in southwestern Virginia on a rainy evening last week had a message for their state’s congressional delegation: Keep cutting spending — or else.
The Franklin County Patriots who attended a monthly meeting at a public library 20 miles south of Roanoke sounded the same themes fellow activists have across the country. But their rallying cry has particular resonance in Virginia, where tea party groups helped oust three of the state’s congressional Democrats in November, replacing them with conservative Republicans.
Six months after that milestone election, activists across Virginia say they are watching to see whether those new lawmakers keep the promises they made to attack the federal budget deficit. That’s what the Franklin County Patriots said they wanted from their freshman representative, Robert Hurt (R).
“We’re going to hold his feet to the fire,” said Richard Walters, a minister and a leading member of the group. “He’s going to hear from us every day.”
Unlike most officials in Washington, tea party activists in Franklin and elsewhere said they don’t fear a government shutdown. Many said they saw that outcome as preferable to a deal that simply doesn’t cut enough spending.
“I know they all go up there and want to compromise,” said Phil Spence, vice chairman of the 2nd Tuesday Constitution Group in Roanoke. “I’m against compromise. Either we have principle, or we don’t have principle.”
The pressure from conservative activists could boil over this week.
House Republicans are deep in discussions with Senate Democrats and the White House over a new continuing resolution to keep the government funded through September. The version of the measure passed by the House in February cut spending by $61 billion, which some tea party groups considered insufficient. Whatever bipartisan deal is reached will be far less than that.
“Some [cutting] is better than nothing, but we see it as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Chip Tarbutton, president of the Roanoke Tea Party.
He said he expected his congressman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R), to vote against any such deal, “even if it means shutting down the government.”
The day-to-day details of Washington spending fights may escape most Americans, but Virginia tea party leaders made clear that they’ve been paying close attention to the voting records of Hurt and his fellow Republican freshmen, Reps. Scott Rigell and H. Morgan Griffith.
In mid-March, the House approved a continuing resolution, or CR, to keep the government running for three more weeks. The bill cut $6 billion in spending but did not include some policy provisions that were included in the February bill, which defunded Planned Parenthood and President Obama’s health-care bill.
Fifty-four Republicans voted against that, including Rigell; Hurt and Griffith voted for it. Tea party groups took note.
“I would say that we’ve been very pleased with Mr. Rigell thus far,” said David Donis, chairman of the Hampton Roads Tea Party. “He has set the tone that we would like the rest of the Virginia delegation to follow, which is no more continuing resolutions. Let’s cut the budget now rather than later.”
Griffith said he believed voting for the short-term spending resolutions was the right thing to do, regardless of the criticism from some quarters.
“I felt like leadership needed the additional time to see if the Senate was even halfway serious about making additional cuts,” Griffith said, later adding: “I’m willing to take the slings and arrows from the tea party to buy an additional five weeks if that’s what it took to make clear that the Senate and the president are not serious.”
Carole Thorpe of the Jefferson Area Tea Party said she wanted Hurt to “make an even bolder stand, not follow but lead.” In particular, she was unhappy that Hurt voted for a CR that didn’t defund the health-care bill, calling it “a yellow flag.”
But her review of Hurt was mostly positive. Her group held a rally recently at Hurt’s Charlottesville office, and Thorpe said “the message was, in general, we are pleased with Robert’s representation, and it’s pretty good so far.”
Back at the library in Rocky Mount, Kathy Ferguson agreed.
“I am very happy at this point with the job Congressman Hurt has done,” Ferguson said. “He has done exactly what he said he would do. He has voted to cut spending, [and] he’s voted to repeal the health-care bill.”
Jerry Conner, who helps run the Franklin County Patriots’ Web site, offered a more qualified assessment of Hurt.
“He voted to repeal health care, and that’s a good thing,” Conner said. “But he’s voted twice for these continuing resolutions on this budget . . .stuff, and that’s wrong.. . .These guys have got to start walking with the people that put ’em there.”
In an interview, Hurt said he understood that there was “some disagreement about the process by which we use the leverage we have” as Republicans, given that Democrats control the Senate and the White House.
“We’re very early in the battles we face in the future,” Hurt said. “I think we have to be smarter, because we’re outnumbered in terms of the three levers of government. . . . I’m proud to have been able to vote for every single cut that’s been put in front of me.”
Whatever final agreement the two parties reach on spending cuts is unlikely to cut off funding for health-care reform, given that Obama would refuse to sign such a measure. That reality doesn’t sit well with some activists.
Karen Miner Hurd, executive director of the Virginia Tea Party Alliance, said the new Republican class was elected with certain mandates from the voters. “Defunding Obamacare was definitely one of those mandates,” she said. “They cannot hedge on that.”
But Beth Hammond, who was at the Franklin County meeting, counseled patience.
“There is only so much that can be done with that health-care law until we have a new election,” Hammond said. “I think we need to hold their feet to the fire like everybody else here, but don’t jump to conclusions too fast, because I think we need to look at the whole picture before we do that.”
In 2010, Rigell, Hurt and Griffith all faced some opposition from tea party activists, and all three secured their nominations with relative ease. Hurt and Rigell won competitive primaries by wide margins, and Griffith was nominated at a convention.
With the advantages of incumbency – including strong name identification and fundraising resources – there is little reason to think any of the three will have trouble being nominated next year.
Yet none of the men is likely to get a free pass, either.
In Rocky Mount, the Franklin County Patriots made clear that they wouldn’t automatically vote to give Hurt another term just because he’s the incumbent. (They did say, however, that they would definitely back Hurt over former U.S. representative Tom Perriello if the Democrat runs to win his old seat back.)
Hurd’s Virginia Tea Party Alliance was formed to train tea party candidates for state and local offices, but she also has her eye on the 2012 congressional contests.
“I think if Hurt and Griffith don’t shape up, they can expect a challenge,” Hurd said.
Hurt said he was “laser-focused on reducing spending,” not on the possibility of a contested primary.
“I don’t really think much about the next election,” Hurt said.
Griffith said he was prepared for a challenge. “I had to fight for the nomination [last] time. I fully expect there to be another nomination fight,” he said.
Some in Virginia are looking beyond their state’s congressional delegation and would place the blame for a bad deal on national Republican leaders.
“What I could see happening is the GOP is going to face an internal struggle here if they fail to produce those cuts,” said the Hampton Roads Tea Party’s Donis. “The pressure they felt prior to 2010 is going to feel insignificant compared to what will happen in the coming year.”