Freshman Sen. Mike Lee promised a room packed with conservative activists at the inaugural meeting of the Senate Tea Party Caucus that his new group would allow “you and other Constitution-loving, freedom-embracing Americans” to communicate directly with senators.
That meeting was in January — and the caucus has done hardly anything since.
“It’s only been nine months,” the Utah Republican said last week when asked about the apparent lack of action.
On both sides of the Capitol, efforts by conservative lawmakers to harness the energy of the right-wing movement into an organized group on Capitol Hill have gone dormant as members get sidetracked with pursuing their own agendas and as freshman members realize that organizing caucuses can be a fruitless and time-consuming endeavor — especially in the Senate.
Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, a freshman Republican who served nearly a decade in the House, said there was a lack of enthusiasm in the Senate’s 47-member GOP conference for organizing a Tea Party Caucus.
“On top of that, any caucus is tough,” Kirk said, pointing to the institutional hurdles in a body where the power granted to each senator often makes such groups unnecessary.
On the House side, the Tea Party Caucus has been similarly quiet. The last meeting of the 60-member group occurred in early June, several months after its previous meeting in late February. The group was launched in July 2010 by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) to “ensure the voices of the people are carried through the halls of Congress.”
But “the people” haven’t been able to communicate much with this group since Bachmann turned her attention to the presidential campaign trail. Before returning to Washington on Oct. 12, to vote on free-trade agreements, Bachmann had not voted since Aug. 1, when she voted against the debt ceiling agreement. She missed nearly half of all votes in July.
Iowa Rep. Steve King — a tea party favorite, himself, and close friend of Bachmann — acknowledged that he hasn’t heard a peep out of the House Tea Party Caucus in the past few months.
“The reason for that is Michele Bachmann leads the Tea Party Caucus, and she’s almost 100 percent campaigning for president right now,” King said in a phone interview. But he argued the group carried clout in the House and said it would continue to function whether Bachmann is in Washington or in Iowa.
Members of the House often organize into caucuses to have a greater voice in floor debates and to extract concessions out of their party’s leadership. But in the House, there already is an established caucus of conservatives — the Republican Study Committee, which boasts a roster of more than 170. And in the Senate, there’s the conservative Steering Committee that has a hired staff that promotes policy ideas.
“I didn’t want to have to be in a caucus within a caucus,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a tea party favorite who is a Steering Committee member but declined to join the tea party group.
Critics say both the House and the Senate Tea Party caucuses are simply designed to allow lawmakers to attach their names to them so they can point to their work on behalf of the grass-roots movement when they speak with voters back home. The lack of activity, they say, confirms that suspicion.
But Bachmann spokeswoman Becky Rogness defended the group’s work, saying the congresswoman was still getting public input without formal meetings and that the House Tea Party Caucus was overhauling its website to more directly communicate between lawmakers and the public. And she pointed to two events Bachmann and the caucus hosted dubbed Constitutional Seminars, including one featuring Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
“A number of caucuses never meet,” she said. “The Tea Party Caucus still strives to meet occasionally and keep its members informed.”
The Senate group was formed in the aftermath of the 2010 election cycle that ushered in 15 new Republicans, several of whom won because of support from the movement for small government.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who wholeheartedly embraced the movement in his first run at elected office last year, immediately wanted to start a caucus in the aftermath of his November victory. And that was quickly embraced by Lee and Sen. Jim DeMint, the conservative South Carolinian who also is chairman of the Steering Committee.
But the membership roster remained thin — only Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran formally joined the group later.
“I did go to that first meeting, and maybe there’s been another meeting?” Moran said. “I have not been back. If there has been one, I haven’t been there since.”
Asked whether he’s spoken with anyone about the caucus lately, Moran said: “No.”
In interviews, Paul, DeMint and Lee all downplayed the lack of meetings, saying they “constantly” speak with one another about legislative strategy on the floor. Moreover, the three men remain largely united in their votes on the floor, voting in the minority of the minority on a range of issues, including against bipartisan deals to raise the debt ceiling, keeping the government funded and ending the practice of secret holds on legislation.
Paul took his legislative hijinks to a new level last week when he invoked a rarely used procedural weapon to prevent legislative committees from meeting for more than two hours when the Senate’s in session — as a way to prevent a panel from voting on a bill to overhaul the No Child Left Behind law.
“He’s a whole mess of contradictions,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) angrily said about Paul.
Paul pointed to his heavy legislative portfolio as one reason why the Tea Party Caucus hasn’t met more, including his aggressive effort to slow passage of the far-reaching education bill that he said needed more debate.
“Now that you’ve reminded me, maybe that is something we need to work on,” Paul said of the Tea Party Caucus.
While he didn’t single out any of the group’s other co-founders, he said another reason for not having another session was “mainly because I don’t think I was in charge of the second meeting.”
DeMint noted that it was “really Rand and Mike [who] had been leading that” group, though he said the three men each continue their regular outreach to tea party activists and work together “all the time.”
“We don’t need a name of a Tea Party Caucus necessarily,” DeMint said, in citing their collaboration. “But I think part of that is just to communicate to people on the outside that it wasn’t just about that election. We’re going to work together to try to grow our numbers and get things done.”
Some GOP senators say incoming freshmen may have had the wrong impression that their leadership would not listen to their concerns and have since learned that they can force change by working from within the conference, rather than through an outside group.
“I think they’re finding an opportunity to contribute, to offer legislation, to push their ideas,” said Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.). “I think they’re finding their place.”
Indeed, some of the group’s members argue that the Tea Party Caucus in the House exerted much influence during this summer’s prolonged debt ceiling debate, in particular over the passage of the Cut, Cap and Balance legislation in the House.
King, the Iowa congressman, also argued that the group’s influence helped scuttle the so-called grand bargain debt ceiling deal privately attempted by Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama.
“That was clearly the tea party’s impact on the Republican Conference,” he said.
In the Senate, Lee said he’s “sure we’ll meet from time to time on something we call the Tea Party Caucus.”
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