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Tea Party's Voice Booms Over Debt Talks

SCOTT SIMON, host: The political bickering over cutting the deficit and raising the debt ceiling has been fueled, in part, by the Tea Party. Fighting deficits is a core belief of this conservative group, which emerged as a significant force in the 2010 midterm elections, especially in the Republican Party. We're going to talk more about the Tea Party's influence in this debt debate with New York Times reporter Kate Zernike. She's the author of "Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America."

Thanks so much for being with us.

KATE ZERNIKE: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: Help us understand how attitudes on debt help define the Tea Party.

ZERNIKE: Well, if you were to define Tea Party sentiment most broadly, there has been this sense that, you know, if the nation had credit cards, we would need to cut them up. That has been, more than anything, the unifying aim of the Tea Party.

SIMON: And is that reflected in the way they regard the national deficit and raising the debt limit?

ZERNIKE: Well, I think it - I mean, I think the complicated nature of the Tea Party - or the sort of undefined nature of the Tea Party - affects how they are viewing this debt fight.

On the one hand, you have legislatures who are members of the Tea Party caucus - which is about, you know, 60 people in the House and only a small handful in the Senate - who are very rigid on the debt limit and don't want to increase it.

But then you have, you know, the vast number of Tea Party supporters. I would say that most of those voters wouldn't necessarily say that their first object is the debt limit. I think they are most concerned, as voters overall are, with unemployment, with the general direction of the economy. I'm not sure that their first goal is reducing the deficit.

SIMON: When you hear some Republicans say the talk of tax hikes or raising the debt ceiling is off the table, do you hear the influence of the Tea Party?

ZERNIKE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think if you look even - if you look at, say, Paul Ryan, who's a House member whose budget has been extremely influential, three years ago, I guess, when Paul Ryan first came out with this budget proposal, people dismissed it out of hand. It was calling for austerity measures that were way beyond what anyone was wiling to talk about - cuts to Medicare and Social Security. They assumed that voters wouldn't want it, that they would be hugely unpopular with voters.

Now, if you listen to the way - first of all, the Republicans have adopted Ryan's budget as their own, in the spring. And if you listen to them talk, it's all about austerity. And so the Tea Party has really forced the Republicans into a line where it's all about austerity; it's all about hard line.

I'm not sure that Republicans - in their private moments or behind closed doors, where the negotiating is happening - are actually living up to that, or have fully embraced that. But they feel that they need to be seen publicly as embracing this hard - as taking this hard line against spending, and also against working with Democrats because they have seen Republicans get voted out in November - where voters were saying, you know, I don't like the fact that he or she reaches across the aisle to work with Democrats. We've done too much reaching across the aisle; you can't do that.

SIMON: If House Republicans were to agree to some tax hikes in order to get this resolved, what kind of reaction would you forecast among Tea Party supporters?

ZERNIKE: Well, I, you know, we've already heard from Tea Party caucus members in the House that they won't support that. You know, Speaker Boehner suggested earlier in the week that by reforming the tax code, you could raise one trillion in new revenue. And instantly, members of his own caucus were saying no because they think those are going to be seen as tax hikes.

But polls suggest that a lot of Tea Party voters, like a lot of voters in general, do actually approve of people who make more money paying more in taxes. Again, it's all about how this is perceived.

When I listen and when I sort of, you know, go around the country and talk to Tea Partiers, what it reminds me most of are sort of the tax revolts of the late '70s and early '80s, when we saw property tax caps in California and Massachusetts. It does feel very much like an anti-tax revolt.

So if these are portrayed as tax hikes, yes, it's going to be hugely unpopular. But I do think if it's reform of the tax code, people will have a sense that that is fair, and that is something that is acceptable to them.

SIMON: Kate Zernike, a reporter for the New York Times and author of "Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America." Thanks very much for being with us.

ZERNIKE: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.