Republican Senator-elect Rand Paul, probably the best-known of the tea party figures who won election last week, brushed aside talk that the GOP establishment might co-opt newly-elected members of the movement and said, "I think the tea party actually is co-opting Washington."
"We're coming. We're proud. We're strong. We're loud," Paul said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "And we're going to co-opt. And, in fact, I think we're already shaping the debate."
Paul said the prime example was political and public concern about the nation's debt. "You hear a lot of talk about the debt now. Where do you think that's coming from?" Paul asked.
A potential showdown is looming, probably early next year, when the House will be asked to vote on raising the federal debt ceiling and, if agreement is not reached, the government would default on obligations because it would no longer be able to borrow. When Republicans took control of the House in 1995, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich refused to go along with raising the ceiling, triggering a government shutdown which, later, former President Bill Clinton turned to the Democrats' political advantage.
Paul said that he and like-minded new lawmakers would take a hard line on the debt issue.
"I think we've been fiscally irresponsible for a generation or more here," he said. "And the one thing about the tea party that's interesting is, it really is equal parts chastisement to both parties. You know, Republicans doubled the debt when we were in charge, and then Democrats are tripling the debt."
He said he intended to push for a seat on the Senate Budget Committee and would introduce a plan to balance the budget although he didn't set a firm timetable for how quickly. "If they won't do it in a year, we'll say, how about two years? If they won't do it in two years, how about three years? But someone has to believe it," he said.
Paul also said he would back a balanced budget amendment.
The talk of "co-opting" tea party lawmakers
traces back to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. Lott, now a lobbyist, said last summer: "We don't need a lot of Jim DeMint disciples. As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them."
Lott was referring to Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who through his Senate Conservatives Fund backed many of the insurgent candidates around the country who challenged establishment Republicans.
Paul said if there was room for compromise on spending, it was to get liberals to agree to cuts in domestic programs and Republicans to back reductions in military spending.
"Republicans never say they'll cut anything out of military," Paul said. "What I say is, national defense is the most important thing we do in Washington, but there's still waste in the military budget. You have to make it smaller, but you also then need to address, how many wars are we going to be involved in? Are we going to be involved in every war all the time?"
While Paul put cutting the pay of soldiers off the table, he did raise questions about the costly U.S. commitment to the war in Afghanistan.
"We need to have a debate in our country, in our Congress over, is our national security still threatened by Afghanistan? Do we need to be there?" Paul said.
"If you ask our G.I.s, when I asked them from Kentucky leaving the base, I say, 'Are the Afghans stepping up enough? Would you rather the Afghans do more of the patrolling on the streets?" Every one of these young brave men and women will tell you, 'Yes.' "
As for other spending reduction targets, Paul declined to offer specifics and said, "Bottom line is, you have to look at everything across the board."
He said that had to include entitlement programs, such as Social Security, though he said, "Democrats have run against Republicans for years saying we're going to take away your grandmother's Social Security. We're not going to do that."
On NBC's "Meet the Press," DeMint was asked if the tea party was taking over the Republican Party, and he said, "Hardly. I'm hoping the Republican Party will embrace a lot of the ideas of the tea party, but it's a mistake to think the tea party is one big organization. It's made up of thousands of leaders all across the country, of citizens who are just tired of out-of-control spending. ... I think they made a huge difference in the election, but they're just a part of this awakening of the American people ... that's realigning politics in America today."