Republicans elected to Congress with the help of Tea Party support pledged Sunday to devote themselves to balancing the budget over all else when they start their new jobs on Wednesday.
In the lead-up to the next session, Tea Party freshmen and activists have expressed disappointment at the legislation passed by Congress in the waning days of the post-election lame-duck session. The bipartisan package to extend the Bush-era tax cuts was seen by some conservatives as a flawed deal that failed to bury the estate tax and make permanent the income tax rates of the past decade. At the same time, critics assailed the package for containing billions in new deficit spending.
Tea Party candidates said Sunday they hope to change the culture of spending in Washington as they prepare to get sworn in this week. They said Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, earmarks and other items will all be on the table for serious reform. They warned their more experienced colleagues to hold back on the deficit spending once they come into office.
"It's time to once and for all ... stop perpetually spending money we don't have and sending the bill to unborn generations of Americans," Sen.-elect Mike Lee of Utah told "Fox News Sunday."
Lee said the $858 billion package passed by Congress at the end of 2010 demonstrated the need for a balanced-budget amendment, which he said he will propose.
"It certainly is disturbing that we have to add an additional trillion dollars to our debt in order to preserve tax cuts without which our economy couldn't survive right now," he said. "Congress has long abused the authority to incur debt in the name of the United States. And we need to restrict that."
Allen West, an incoming GOP congressman from Florida, said the problems facing Washington are big, but not "insurmountable."
Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," he said more needs to be done to set the stage for private-sector job growth and scale back government intervention. West suggested the latest vote to extend long-term unemployment benefits for another 13 months was just "creating more victims and making people dependent on the government."
He said the federal government needs spending caps and needs to address the long-term imbalance in the nation's entitlement programs -- a common refrain in Washington.
It remains to be seen whether Tea Partiers can muster the kind of bipartisan majority needed to address that imbalance. But Sen.-elect Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania echoed the point on entitlement reform in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"Nobody is talking about making it go away. We're talking about changing the structure," he said in reference to Social Security.
Toomey was one of the Tea Party movement's early stars, effectively forcing incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter out of the Republican Party during the GOP primary race. After Toomey cruised to victory in the primary and Rep. Joe Sestak beat Specter on the Democratic side, Toomey defeated Sestak by a narrow margin in November.
Toomey and Lee will join several other Tea Party-backed senators, including Kentucky's Rand Paul and Florida's Marco Rubio, when they take the oath this week. That's along with dozens of new GOP House members.
Republican leaders can probably count on most incoming Tea Partiers to back early priorities like voting to repeal the health care law -- though that effort will almost certainly be stymied by a presidential veto in the off-chance that it clears both chambers. But on some other tricky subjects, they could be a bit of a wild card.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who is not a freshman but still commanded Tea Party enthusiasm over the past two years, said Sunday that she does not support raising the debt ceiling.
She said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that she's gathering signatures on a petition to urge Congress to vote against raising the $14.3 trillion cap.
The White House warned Sunday that failing to raise the ceiling could drag the country into default and trigger an economic crisis worse than that of 2008. Acknowledging the dilemma, other Tea Party-backed lawmakers, like West, said they could vote for a debt ceiling increase provided certain conditions are met.
West said he would not write a "blank check," and that if Congress wants to raise the cap, they need to talk about "budgetary controls" and spending caps.