Tax Cut Deal a Conundrum for Tea Partiers

People attend a tea party protest in Washington, Thursday, April 15, 2010. AP

The tax cut deal worked out between President Obama and Congressional Republicans will cost $858 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

That's not exactly small change. In fact, it's more than the cost of the economic stimulus package that contributed to the rise of the Tea Party movement.

The price tag means that the deal represents something of a test for Tea Partiers who are being asked to choose between lower taxes - something they strongly support - and a significant increase in the budget deficit - something they strongly oppose.

FreedomWorks, the Tea Party-affiliated group, is supporting the measure, arguing in a letter on its website that while they are troubled by aspects of the bill, it represents "an opportunity to avert the coming tax disaster" represented by a failure to extend the expiring Bush-era tax cuts.

The Tea Party Patriots, by contrast, are opposing the bill. On their homepage, the group links to a Hugh Hewitt column in which the conservative radio host complains that the agreement "spends billions and billions of dollars that the country does not have in order to prevent a tax hike that the country voted against. In essence the GOP bribed the president to follow the will of the people." (It should be noted that while Republicans made gains in the midterm elections, polls suggest the public supports the president's position on the tax cuts, not the GOP's.)

Backers of the agreement say the blow to the budget deficit will be mitigated by the fact that the bill, which is made up largely of tax breaks, will stimulate the economy, and that will in turn mean more money coming into the government in the long tun.

But critics say the bill is essentially stimulus part two - and note the GOP wasn't so crazy about the first version. Washington Post conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer deemed the agreement a "swindle" that makes a mockery of Republicans' "newfound, second-chance, post-Bush, Tea-Party, this-time-we're-serious persona of debt-averse fiscal responsibility."

The Tea Party's stated commitment to deficit reduction has not always matched its positions: The movement's steadfast opposition to the health care bill, for example, is somewhat discordant in light of projections that the bill will lower the deficit over the next ten years. Now the movement must grapple with the question of whether it supports tax cuts even when they don't come with spending reductions - tax cuts that only exacerbate America's ever-growing debt problem, at the very least in the short term.

In addition, the bill being discussed in the Senate also now includes unrelated items not found in the original framework that are designed to win over skeptical lawmakers, among them ethanol subsidies, commuter tax breaks and green energy grants. These are the sort of sweeteners that the Tea Party ostensibly opposes.

The debate over the tax cut deal ultimately speaks to the larger difficulty faced by the Tea Party in transforming stirring campaign rhetoric into legislative reality. The movement wants the deficit reduced, and it also wants taxes cut - and that means major reductions in spending.

But the steps taken so far by the GOP to limit spending - among them an earmarks ban and a five percent House budget cut - are relatively insignificant. To close the deficit without raising taxes - let alone lower them - it would require serious cuts to the programs that eat up much of the budget, like entitlements and defense spending.

And while there was some noise among Tea Party candidates to address entitlements during the campaign, congressional Republicans show little sign that they intend to significantly cut the sorts of expensive programs that have broad support among Americans, particularly the older voters who disproportionately back the GOP.

Support among Republicans for the tax cut deal suggests that for all the campaign rhetoric about the deficit, the establishment GOP has little problem with digging America's debt hole a little deeper. And the Tea Party's response to that reality marks the first real post-election test of the fragile coalition between the Republican establishment and the movement that helped return it to power.

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