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For Tea Party Winners, Now Comes the Hard Part

Mike Lee
Mike Lee and his and his wife Sharon. AP

The Tea Party candidates being swept into office Tuesday - in the Senate they include Kentucky's Rand Paul, Florida's Marco Rubio and Utah's Mike Lee - now face a challenge far more daunting than simply winning an election. Once in office, they must work to take their rhetoric about cutting spending, offered with little detail during the campaign, and transform it into legislative action.

It won't be easy. Consider the promises of Utah's Mike Lee, who said at one point he thought it necessary to cut federal spending by 40 percent to balance the budget. It's nearly impossible to imagine how this could happen.

Here's why: In 2010, 20 percent of the $3.6 trillion federal budget went to defense, 20 percent to Social Security and 21 percent to Medicare, Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program. While lawmakers could potentially make some cuts to these programs, they simply aren't going to try to cut them completely -- unless they're looking to commit mass political suicide. (Even perhaps the most unapologetic Tea Party candidate, Nevada's Sharron Angle, retreated from her early promise to phase out Social Security during the campaign.)

Let's be generous and say Republicans would try to cut five percent of the budget from these areas next year. That means almost all of the remaining budget would need to be cut to meet that 40 percent threshold. That includes interest on the national debt, which is six percent of the budget and which America presumably needs to pay.

It also includes the 19 percent of federal spending that goes largely to "providing health care and other benefits to veterans and retirement benefits to retired federal employees, assuring safe food and drugs, protecting the environment, and investing in education, scientific and medical research, and basic infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and airports," as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities writes.
Rand Paul.

The rest of the budget - which also, keep in mind, would almost entirely have to be cut to meet Lee's target - goes to safety net programs like food stamps, school meals and low-income housing assistance.

Paul, from Kentucky, has promised to "vote against and filibuster any unbalanced budget." Yet he and other Tea Party candidates want to balance the budget while extending the Bush-era tax cuts for all Americans, including the highest-earners. (The Obama administration wants to extend them for all but roughly the top two percent of Americans.) That would mean $4 trillion less coming into the Treasury over the next ten years, according to the Washington Post, and make a balanced-budget that much more difficult to achieve.

Now, Tea Party candidates will be a small percentage of Congress overall. But their passionate supporters are going to expect to see them attempt to keep their campaign promises, and the GOP (even those members keeping the Tea Party at arm's length) knows it can't afford to alienate what has become a crucial voting bloc. So that means we can safely expect some sort of move to make dramatic budget cuts.

But what? The specific budget cuts in the GOP's Pledge to America - presumably the guiding principle for the House now that Republicans have taken over - do not come close to the sort of deep cuts necessary to balance the budget. Republicans could call for deeper cuts, but that means a spotlight on specific proposed cuts that might not play well with many Americans.

So while Tea Party candidates presently have plenty of reason to celebrate, they will face a daunting task when they take office in January. Like so many politicians before them -- Mr. Obama springs to mind -- they come into office carrying lofty rhetoric that will be exceedingly difficult to transform into reality.

Brian Montopoli is a political reporter for You can read more of his posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.
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