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Tea party leaders will meet with Steele and other Republican operatives

By Philip Rucker
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; A02

About 50 leaders of the grass-roots "tea party" movement will meet in Washington on Tuesday with Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele and other top GOP operatives to discuss campaign strategies and conservative principles.

The afternoon meeting on Capitol Hill will mark the first time that a broad coalition of tea party organizers -- who have railed against both the Democratic and the Republican establishments -- will sit down with GOP leaders. Top Republican leaders have been openly courting the organizers, looking to marshal grass-roots energy heading into November's midterm elections.

Karin Hoffman, founder of DC Works For Us, a tea party group in South Florida, said she initiated the meeting by approaching Steele last month and asking him to sit down with a range of tea party organizers. She said her goal is to open a civil dialogue with the GOP leadership, but she dismissed any suggestion that tea party groups might merge with the Republican Party.

"From the get-go, the grass-roots movement emerged from people desiring to be heard and not feeling like their voices are being heard in Washington," Hoffman said in an interview. "This is the beginning of a formal discussion with the political establishment."

RNC spokeswoman Katie Wright said Steele plans to listen to concerns of tea party leaders and hopes to discuss such issues as lower taxes and smaller government. "The chairman believes it is extremely important to listen to this significant grass-roots movement and work to find common ground in order to elect officials that will protect these principles," she said.

The organizers meeting with Steele and his top RNC lieutenants represent about 30 tea party groups nationwide, from Connecticut to South Carolina to Texas. Hoffman said each tea party leader is paying his or her way to come to Washington -- "There's not a single corporate dime," she said -- and noted that dozens of other organizers could not come because of the travel costs.

But Hoffman said some other leaders of tea party groups declined her invitation to meet with Steele, saying they "distrust" the Republican Party leadership.

"The trust has to be earned," she said.

The tea party movement emerged in early 2009 as a protest of President Obama's economic policies and health-care agenda. Made up of hundreds of disparate regional groups, the movement has no national leadership, and organizers frequently have quarreled publicly about tactics, including at the inaugural National Tea Party Convention this month in Nashville.

Tea partiers have united around a conservative formula of smaller government, less federal spending and stronger national defense, but not all of them are Republicans. Many are registered independents and disapprove of former president George W. Bush and the Republicans who controlled Congress in the mid-2000s just as much as they do of Obama and the current Democratic congressional leadership.

Asked whether she would request a similar meeting with Democratic National Committee Chairman Timothy M. Kaine, Hoffman said: "After this meeting, we will do that. . . . Setting up a discussion with the DNC would be very appropriate."

But Hoffman acknowledged that tea partiers agree with more of the Republican platform than the Democratic platform.

Steele, House Republican leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) and other party leaders have said recently that winning over tea party activists is critical to the GOP's hopes of regaining congressional majorities in November. But Republican leaders have been careful not to try to take over.

"I'm not looking to co-opt the tea party movement," Steele told reporters in Hawaii last month during the RNC winter meeting. He added: "I'm looking to work with activist citizens who are mad, who are frustrated and angry about the direction they see the country going."

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