Tea party lawmakers and activists find making change difficult in a Washinton mired in tradition.
WASHINGTON – Welcome to Washington, tea partiers.
Now that they're freshmen in a GOP-run House, the political movement's candidates are running smack into the traditions, partisan divisions and powerful competing interests that make it so hard to redirect the government.
Some tea party activists — part of a loose-knit, libertarian-tinged network advocating small government and less federal spending — already are dismayed to see their new lawmakers plunge into familiar patterns of raising political cash, hiring former lobbyists and stopping short of the often-heard vow to "change the way Washington works."
Others are more lenient and patient.
"There's a little bit of expectation that they can do more than they really can do," said Sal Russo, a California-based co-founder of the Tea Party Express. Democrats still control the Senate and White House, he noted in an interview from Wyoming, where he was visiting potential Senate candidates for 2012.
Russo said the recently enacted tax cut compromise reached with President Barack Obama was imperfect but "as good a deal as we're going to get." The tea party must expand its influence with each new election, he added.
Other activists, however, fear their newly elected lawmakers will fall too quickly into old Washington habits of turning to special interest groups and their lobbyists for information, advice and campaign money. Some winced at a Jan. 4 fundraiser at Washington's W Hotel, where ticket prices ranged from $2,500 for individuals to $50,000 for "donors." It was sponsored by a political committee founded by freshman Rep. Jeff Denham of California and other Republicans who won election with tea party support.
Denham defended the event, telling reporters his freshman class needs campaign money to stay self-reliant and win future elections.
Some tea party activists also fear their newly elected allies will weaken or break promises to dramatically cut federal spending. Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler told CBS it's an "absolute joke" for House Republicans to back away from pledges to cut $100 billion this fiscal year.
Newly elected Rep. Kristi Noem, a South Dakota Republican with tea party ties, says critics should simmer down.
"They should stay focused on the results we deliver," Noem said in an interview shortly after taking office. "They pick little fights, but I think in the future they're going to be satisfied with the results and solutions that this Republican Congress brings forth."
House Republicans plan on Wednesday to fulfill a tea party priority: voting to repeal the health care law passed by Democrats last year. The pace and rhetoric of the drive have cooled in recent days because of the shootings in Arizona that severely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who supported the new law.
Nonetheless, GOP leaders are sticking with a title for their resolution that Democrats say is inaccurate and unseemly in light of the six people killed in Tucson: "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act." Republicans acknowledge that the Senate is certain to block a repeal.
Some veteran House members say it's unrealistic to think that even a freshman class of 87 Republicans, most of whom have tea party backing, can make a significant impact in their first term.
"They are raring to go," said five-term Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Pa. But with Democrats controlling the Senate, "we can only do what we can do in the House," he added.
"We're going to run a lot of issues up the flagpole and create a lot of national discussion," he added, acknowledging that may be as far as they get.
Nine-term Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, said tea party newcomers who are eager to slash federal spending will soon learn how difficult it is.
"Back in Ohio, almost everybody says, `Oh, you've got to cut spending,'" LaTourette said. "But then they say, `Oh, I didn't know you meant my spending.' And there's going to be a lot of that."
Deep spending cuts would anger many interest groups, and Republicans may pay a price, he said.
Republicans picked up nearly three dozen House seats when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, LaTourette noted.
"Half of them were shown the door two years later," he said. "Not because they did anything wrong. They kept their promises. But when you've got to cut a lot of money out of the budget, everybody's got a pet program, a pet disease, a pet something, and people are going to get fired up."
Indeed, the House's new Republican speaker, John Boehner, another Ohioan, is moving cautiously. When NBC asked him to name a federal program he's willing to cut, Boehner replied, "I don't think I have one off the top of my head, but there is no part of this government that should be sacred."