Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid on Sunday accused the Republican leadership in the House of being "afraid" of the Tea Party - and said it was time for the GOP to decide between the interests of the fledgling conservative political movement and the rest of the country.
In an appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation," Reid said the Tea Party had been "dictating a lot that goes on in the Republican leadership in the House" - particularly in regard to ongoing budget negotiations currently underway for a long-term bill to fund the government through the 2011 fiscal year.
Reid argued that the influence of the Tea Party in Congress was outsized in relation to its impact throughout the rest of the United States.
"The Tea Party, you see, they spent weeks organizing here," said Reid, referring to athat called on Republicans not to compromise with Democrats on the budget. "The day came for their demonstration a couple days ago. They didn't have thousands of people there. They didn't have hundreds of people. They had tens of people. If you really stretch it, you might have had 150 people there.
"The Tea Party is not looked at very strongly around the country. The only attention they get is in the House of Representatives. They shouldn't be getting that attention," Reid continued. "The Republican leadership in the House has to make a decision whether they're going to do the right thing for the country or do the right thing for the Tea Party."
The Nevada senator argued the Tea Party was driving what he described as "mean-spirited" proposed cuts to the federal budget, some version of which Congress must past by April 8 in order to avoid a government shutdown.
"You know, we throw numbers around here. That's good; we need to do that. But this is more than numbers," Reid told CBS' Bob Schieffer. "This involves people. What they did to HR-1 [a 2011 spending bill approved by the House but voted down by the Senate], this bill that did such mean-spirited things... not to cut the debt, but send an ideological message."
Citing HR-1's proposed reductions for programs like Head Start, which aims to provide improved educational opportunities for children in underserved communities, and cuts to benefits for homeless veterans, Reid emphasized Democrats' willingness to make tough choices on fiscal matters, but added, "We don't do it on the backs of middle class Americans."
"We realize that the country needs to do something about spending. And the long-term benefits to doing something about the... deficit are significant," Reid said.
But, he added, "We don't have to reinvent the wheel. We, during the Clinton years, reduced the debt for four years... We paid down the debt. We know how to do this. We don't do it on the backs of middle class Americans."
"We've agreed on a number," he said. "Let's work to get that number done."
When asked directly if he thought Republicans were "afraid" of the Tea Party, Reid said he thought that was "a pretty good choice of words. The answer is yes."
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham, however, responded that the Tea Party was an "important part of the Republican coalition," and said it was the Democrats who should be afraid - "of the public."
"How did you lose the House in such overwhelming numbers?" he asked. "How did you lose so many Senate seats?
"Americans as a whole are very upset about the size and scope of the federal government," Graham continued. "We're trying to reduce spending, and our Democratic friends are hanging on to old ideas that every time you try to reduce spending you're being cruel and mean. What's cruel and mean is to pass this debt on to future generations."
Still, both Reid and Graham said they thought a government shutdown could be prevented.
"I always look at the glass being half-full," Reid told Schieffer. "I think we can work this out. It's so easy to do. Just really, in Washington terms, a few dollars short of being able to do this. It's a question of how we do it. We can't do it on Head Start. We can't do it at the program for little kids. We can't do it... on homeless veterans.
"Let's work on programs that contribute to the debt," he added.
Graham seemed to think it would be Democrats who would come around to the GOP perspective on the budget.
"I think we'll get together," he said, of passing a long-term budget resolution. "I think there are enough Red State Democrats who do not want to take this fight any further. They do want to be seen as reducing spending.
"I think we'll find consensus," Graham added. "We've already reduced spending by $10 billion. The two [Continuing Resolutions] we passed cut spending more than any Congress in the history of America in terms of rescission. I think we'll find common ground there. Enough Democrats out there who understand they need to be on the right side of reducing the federal government and we'll find a number that we can all agree on."