SPECIAL REPORT-Stuck between the Tea Party and a hard place

Tue May 17, 2011 1:29pm BST

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* After "broken promises," Tea Party angry at Republicans

* Budget debate lost, focus now on debt ceiling

* Republicans such as Cantor may face primary challenges

* Tea Partiers see presidential candidates as lackluster

By Nick Carey

DAYTON, Ohio, May 17 (Reuters) - This John Boehner was not the John Boehner that Tea Party leaders in the room thought they knew.

Compared to the Boehner who talked tough on spending ahead of last November's elections, the one who showed up at Club 55, just off Interstate 75 in Troy in southwestern Ohio, struck them as timid.

The private April 25 meeting was convened by the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives at the request of Tea Party leaders, who were seething over recent Republican compromises, most notably on the 2011 budget.

One of the 25 or so leaders, all from Boehner's district, asked him if Republicans would raise America's $14.3 trillion debt limit.

According to half a dozen attendees interviewed by Reuters, the most powerful Republican in Washington said "yes."

"And we're going to have to raise it again in the future," he added. With the mass retirement of America's Baby Boomers, he explained, it would take 20 years to balance the U.S. budget and 30 years after that to erase the nation's huge fiscal deficit.

That answer incensed many of the Tea Party activists, for whom raising the debt limit is anathema.

"You could have knocked me out of my chair," said Denise Robertson, a computer programmer who belongs to the Preble County Liberty Group. "Fifty years?"

She said "my fantasy now" is someone will challenge Boehner in the 2012 Republican primaries. "If we could find someone good to run against him, I'd campaign for them every day," Robertson said.

"I am sick of the tears," she added, a sarcastic reference to Boehner's famous propensity to cry. "I want results."

Fed up with "broken promises," some Tea Party activists have already moved beyond the fantasy stage and aim to "primary" Republicans who have let them down - that is, challenge them in primaries. Some talk of long-shot attempts to unseat leaders like House Majority Whip Eric Cantor.

Led by Boehner, Republicans in Congress are at odds with Democrats and the White House over how to raise the limit on how much debt the United States can afford. President Barack Obama's administration warns of global financial chaos if lawmakers do not increase the current cap of $14.3 trillion.

Boehner, in a May 9 speech in New York, did insist that any increase to the debt limit include "cuts in trillions." But conservatives expect the Republicans will not uphold his demand.

If the Republicans lose the debt limit battle, more Tea Party groups say they will aggressively seek candidates to challenge establishment figures in the 2012 primaries.

"At this point, all of them are potential targets," said Dawn Wildman, president of the SoCal Tax Revolt Coalition, who lives in San Diego. "All the way up to Boehner."

FAILURE AN OPTION?

Born in the days after Obama took office in early 2009 in a wave of conservative anger at corporate bailouts and hefty government spending to stem the Great Recession, the Tea Party movement has come a long way in just two years.

After failing to halt the passage of Obama's health reform bill, Tea Partiers staffed phone banks, knocked on doors to get out the vote and played a major role in gaining 63 seats for the Republicans in the 2010 elections.

The biggest midterm election year swing since 1938 delivered a large House majority for the Republicans and made gains in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Flush with victory, Tea Partiers dived headfirst into local and state politics in 2011 - the results of which are expected to affect the state and national elections of 2012.

Their primary foe is still America's progressive left - it is a given in Ohio, for instance, that the top target for 2012 is Democratic U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown.

But now more than ever before the full force of their ire is directed at the Republican Party establishment.

Dozens of interviews with Tea Party activists across the country paint a picture of a conservative movement whose members gave the Republican Party in Washington a chance to prove it was serious about fiscal responsibility after years of running up deficits under Obama's predecessor George W. Bush.

And many Republican politicians promised to uphold the Tea Party's central tenets - constitutionally limited government, lower taxes and the free markets.

"They certainly talked the talk before the election," said Tim Dake of the Wisconsin Grandsons of Liberty. "They told us what they knew we wanted to hear and sought us out."

After the election, not so much. "All of a sudden they stopped taking our calls and were no longer interested in what we had to say," Dake said.

Hoping for meaningful change, they watched as either the same people - Boehner and Cantor - or party loyalists took up leadership positions in the House.

Then came the first real battle of the new Congress that mattered to the Tea Party - cutting spending in the 2011 budget. Instead of $100 billion in cuts the Republicans promised in their "Pledge to America" unveiled last September, Republicans and Democrats agreed on $38 billion.

When the Congressional Budget Office said the real spending reduction was $352 million that set many Tea Partiers boiling.

"They volunteered that damn promise of $100 billion, we didn't ask for it," said Randy Keller of the Bowling Green Southern Kentucky Tea Party. "They seem to think that we can't handle simple math. We in the Tea Party are so angry we can't stand it."

Not raising America's debt ceiling has now taken on even greater importance for Tea Party groups.

The April 25 meeting with Boehner and inside accounts of others between House Republicans and Tea Partiers in their districts hint at a party trying to manage expectations ahead of the real debt limit debate. The trouble is while compromise is a trademark of Washington politics, to many Tea Partiers it is a dirty word.

According to Ned Ryun, head of American Majority, which provides training for conservative activists, the Republicans' problem is they mistook their November victory as a sign the Tea Party backed them because its members are conservatives.

"The Republican establishment suffers from a weird belief that somehow the Tea Party will fall in line because it is an adjunct of the Republican Party," he said. "But the Tea Party is not and never will be an arm of the Republican Party."

That leaves Boehner stuck between the Tea Party and a hard place. If he pushes too hard on cuts, that will rattle the Republican Party's powerful Wall Street wing, potentially roiling the markets and unsettling the broader electorate.

But backing down will also hurt him. "After accusations he didn't do enough in the budget battle, Boehner has to have something real to take back to conservatives or he's in trouble," said James McCormick, a professor of political science at Iowa State University. "He's boxed in between two components of the Republican Party. Obama knows that and is not under the same pressure."

If the Republicans falter, the search for establishment targets will kick into a higher gear - with freshmen, or those elected in 2010 seen as the easiest to unseat as they are new.

"The Tea Party will almost certainly primary those they want to get rid of," said Larry Sabato, a politics professor at the University of Virginia. "They are not out to rebuild the Republican Party. They are out to take over the Republican Party and make it more like the Tea Party."

"If it takes some Republican defeats along the way to make that happen, then that is what they'