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Conservatives look to tap into anti-Washington air

Monday - 2/10/2014, 6:56pm  ET

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas waits off stage as he is introduced before speaking about energy at the Heritage Action for America 2014 Conservative Policy Summit at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, Monday, Feb. 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

PHILIP ELLIOTT
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Conservatives teeming with anti-Washington frustration are talking about driving the Republicans' policy agenda and ousting GOP leaders who don't hew to their ideology.

At meetings in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol on Monday, two of Washington's most aggressive political organizations outlined conservative agendas that, from health care to federal budgets, run counter to a strategy preferred by Republican congressional leaders. Tea party-styled leaders vowed to prevail over moderates in the party and longtime politicians.

"Americans are frustrated because their priorities are not the priorities of Washington," said Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican freshman from Texas and a tea party leader, said at Heritage Action for America, a Washington organization that agitated for last year's government shutdown. "This cuts across party lines."

That churning resentment could be a boon for conservative candidates, especially those looking to take on incumbent lawmakers from their own party.

At the same time, conservatives said the party needs to present policy proposals that can help form an alternative to President Barack Obama's second term and win over voters. Panels at a day-long summit at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank linked to Heritage Action, focused on alternatives to Democrats' national health care law and federal social welfare programs.

Conservatives are also facing established GOP leaders like House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, who has said tea party sympathizers have credibility problems stemming from their cut-it-or-shut-it resistance to compromise on weighty national issues.

"The American people want choices," said Rep. Tom Price, R-Georgia.

They'll have that chance for choices in November, when the full House and a third of the Senate will be up for grabs.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky faces a primary challenge from fellow Republican Matt Bevin, who has drawn tea party support. Other incumbents are facing challenges from upstart Republicans, and Boehner is facing a mutiny from GOP candidates inside and outside the House.

Such frustration with Washington helped fuel the rise of the tea party in 2010 and helped propel Republicans to control of the House. Conservative candidates are betting that the passion survives the intraparty disputes in the 2014 midterms and helps unseat some congressional veterans.

McConnell tops the list of incumbent targets.

Bevin, the conservative who trails McConnell in the polls and fundraising, said the Senate leader has been too cozy to "big business" and "big government" players in the GOP at the expense to taxpayers.

"The people who are paying for this are about fed up with that," Bevin said Monday at an event with the tea party-aligned FreedomWorks.

Echoed Chris McDaniel, the FreedomWorks-backed Republican challenging Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi: "The Washington elite have turned a blind eye to us."

"We do want to be the conscience of our party because our party has not been listening for some time," McDaniel said.

Added Barry Loudermilk, running for an open House seat in Georgia: "Today, Washington has created an environment that's not government of the people, but government over the people."

Taken together, the insurgent candidates are the latest examples of a Republican Party fracturing between its establishment and grassroots wings. Should they win, these upstart candidates aren't convinced that Boehner should remain top House Republican.

"As Republicans, it's our responsibility, it's our duty to hold Republicans accountable," said Katrina Pierson, a tea party leader who is challenging Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, a member of his party's leadership.

If elected, she said she would vote against another term for Boehner as speaker.

It's a view shared by Igor Birman, running for the House from California.

"I'm very skeptical of the merits of John Boehner remaining the speaker of the House," he said.

That dour view of the Republican-led House is a symptom of meek policy proposals, argued Mike Needham, Heritage's CEO.

"House Republicans, frankly, haven't pursued a bold agenda," he said of his party. "There is a status quo bias in this town that needs to be broken and we're committed to breaking it. Bold ideas, we think, will work at the ballot box."

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