WASHINGTON -- The tea partyers who helped drive GOP gains in the last election are rallying in the city they love to hate Thursday, urging Republican House leaders – Speaker John Boehner above all – to resist the drive toward compromise in the protracted fight over the federal budget. Even, they say, if that means Congress fails to do its most important job: pay for the government.
And if Boehner opts instead to agree to a deal with President Barack Obama?
"You're going to see massive amounts of (GOP) primaries" in next year's election, said Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots. If the Ohio Republican strikes a budget deal that doesn't cut spending enough, Meckler said Wednesday, "he is going to face a primary challenge."
It's tough talk from a member of the loosely affiliated political force that helped drive Boehner's Republican troops into the House majority last year on a platform of smaller, more austere government. And during three months in power, Boehner's been listening.
On Thursday as Meckler's group gathered in the rain near the Capitol, Boehner said he's glad they're part of the debate. But he also made clear that, like it or not, a budget compromise was on the horizon.
"We control one half of one third of the government here in Washington," Boehner told reporters at his weekly briefing. "We can't impose our will on the Senate. All we can do is to fight for all of the spending cuts that we can get an agreement to."
The House passed a tea party-friendly budget that would cut hundreds of programs and eliminate others, including a costly defense project. It also would to repeal the Democrats' year-old health care law and assorted regulations on industry - all unlikely to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate but the sources of goodwill points for Boehner from a faction he can't ignore.
The intensifying talks are as much a test of credibility and clout for the tea party as they are a measure of Boehner's ability to lead. There's evidence that some of the 87 members of the freshmen class have been educated by their real bosses – their constituents – on the fact that governing is what lawmakers get paid for. And sometimes compromise is the only path to making policy.
"Compromise on the subject of spending is a tough sell. It doesn't mean it's an impossible sell," said freshman Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., a member of the Appropriations Committee who won his seat with 72 percent of the vote. Though he acknowledges the voters' mandate to cut spending, "I also live in a realistic world."
Another freshman suggested the no-compromise crowd save their powder. The current, slow-motion showdown is only over a budget to fund the rest of this fiscal year. Just wait, said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, for the fireworks over next year's budget, as well as a must-pass bill to allow the government to borrow more money to meet its commitments. Republicans hope to use that measure to force further spending cuts on the president.
"What I tell folks is: this is like Fort Sumter in the Civil War," the Illinois Republican said Wednesday. "This is the first fight. The big battle is still ahead of us."
Such rhetoric reflects a reality that budget negotiators have assumed for weeks: that with time, those new to Capitol Hill would learn that the only way a budget to passes is with spending cuts that all sides agree on. And that means reductions in the end of somewhere South of the $61 billion Republicans passed in the budget the House passed last month.
Wednesday night, talks centered $33 billion in cuts, and there was evidence that members of the broader Republican caucus weren't balking.
"I don't believe that shutting down government is a solution to the problem. Republicans and Democrats need to work out a compromise," said Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H. "Let's get this over with and get on to the budget."
The tea party rally Thursday promised political muscle and headline-grabbing rhetoric aimed at reminding lawmakers of the populist budget-cutting furor that propelled them to power. Headlining the event was to be the movement's star and possible presidential contender Michele Bachmann, who also happens to be the top Republican fundraiser in the House.
House Republican leaders weren't expected to attend the event. But Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to defend the tea party movement on the Senate floor against Democrats who have suggested it has lost popularity.
A new AP-GFK poll of 1,001 adults conducted March 24-28 showed that support for the movement hasn't budged since the election. About 30 percent of respondents said they were tea party supporters, the same percentage reported in all four surveys since October in which the question's been asked.
"If you ask me, the goals of the Tea Party sound pretty reasonable," McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday.
"These folks recognize the gravity of the problems we face as a nation, and they're doing something about it for the sake of our future," McConnell added. "They're making their voices heard. And they've succeeded in changing the debate here in Washington from how to grow government to how to shrink it."
The senator learned about tea party power in his own back yard last year when the movement's candidate, now-Sen. Rand Paul, won the GOP nomination over one that McConnell had endorsed. Then, in deference to the tea party's demand for a ban on so-called earmarks, McConnell reversed years of unapologetic resistance to such a policy and lined up with its supporters.
Lest lawmakers forget the lessons of 2010 as they face an April 8 deadline for the current budget, the rally Thursday is aimed at reminding them.
"We're still here," Meckler says.