WASHINGTON — Fervent tea party Republicans are headed to Congress carrying ambitious promises to overhaul taxes, spending and health care, with activists pressuring them to buck their own party if necessary to achieve their goals. "They are not in a mood for compromise," said Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler.
The activists promised to keep up the pressure on their favored lawmakers to fight a Washington establishment they say is broken and doesn't work for the best interests of the American people. That could make trouble for congressional leaders who need compromise and dealmaking to get any work done.
Several tea party winners said in interviews that they were reaching out to one another in the wake of the election to form a coalition for their conservative principles. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., formed a tea party caucus this summer with a couple dozen members, and the freshmen said it's unclear if they would join her group or start one of their own.
Rep.-elect Renee Ellmers in North Carolina said a tea party caucus will serve as sort of a watchdog on Capitol Hill and change the Republican Party for the better. She expects to agree mostly with Republican leaders on the issues but wants to ensure that they follow the core principles of the movement: limited government, reduced spending and a focus on the Constitution.
"What the job will be now is to keep those in Washington in line," Ellmers said.
More than 30 tea party candidates won election to Congress on Tuesday, according to an analysis by The Associated Press, enough to make their voices heard by Capitol Hill leaders if not numbers large enough to pass their conservative agenda.
"You can't necessarily set the positive agenda that we want across the board, but you can stop a lot of bad things from happening, and that's a step forward," said Colin Hanna, president of tea party support group Let Freedom Ring.
Tim Scott, elected to the House from South Carolina, said he's not looking for a fight with Republicans but to help push the party toward the right.
"There's no question the tea party has helped the Republican Party remember its conservative roots. And if we are going to govern well, we will govern from a conservative perspective," Scott said.
Whether tea party candidates performed better than more moderate Republicans would have in an anti-Democratic climate is unclear. But it's evident the movement injected a jolt of energy into an election year when Americans were disillusioned with government and may otherwise have turned away from participating.
Tea party victories in House races help fuel the Republican takeover of the lower chamber, while losses of candidates backed by the movement in the Colorado, Delaware and Nevada Senate races cost the GOP opportunities to pick up three new seats. Some didn't take defeat graciously – Christine O'Donnell declared her Delaware Senate candidacy a success even though she lost by 16 percentage points, and New York gubernatorial loser Carl Paladino showed up to his concession speech wielding a baseball bat.
Senate leaders will have three outspoken tea party favorites to try to rein in: Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah. "The tea party is really an expression of a widespread sentiment in America that Washington is broken and that both parties are to blame," Rubio said.
Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, planning to take over as speaker now that Republicans have won the House, said that over the next few months he'll look at ways to work with his new tea party caucus to pass legislation they will oppose like increasing the debt limit. He didn't offer any solutions but instead tried to focus on what they have in common.
"If we're listening to the American people, I don't see any problems incorporating members of the tea party along with our party in the quest that's really the same," Boehner said. "They want us to cut spending and focus on creating jobs in America."
Ellmers said she suspects tea party lawmakers will usually agree with the Republican leadership but that she wants to make sure they don't simply fall in line. She even said she'd be interested to see candidates other than Boehner for speaker, although none is running and he appears to have a lock on the job.
Meckler said tea party activists have a message for Boehner: "We want him to remember that the American people have spoken loud and clear and they're not in a flexible mood."
The Tea Party Patriots, a coalition of more than 2,800 local groups, plans to hold a conference for freshman lawmakers later this month to remind them to stay loyal to the movement's values. Meckler said activists are looking beyond the next Congress and have come up with a 40-year plan to reform educational, political, judicial and cultural systems to elevate conservative values. The group is also working on a jobs bank to offer the newly elected candidates potential staffers with Washington outsider credentials.
But Tea Party hero Rand Paul moved immediately to name an insider as chief of staff for his Senate office. Doug Stafford, a longtime GOP operative in Washington, has been his top political consultant and is vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and as a consultant to the Campaign for Liberty.
Associated Press writers Brendan Farrington in Tallahasee, Fla., Mike Baker in Raleigh, N.C., Roger Alford in Bowling Green, Ky., and Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C., contributed to this report.