By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010; A03
So who wants to join Rand Paul's "tea-party" caucus?
"I don't know about that," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) replied with a nervous laugh. "I'm not sure I should be participating in this story."
Republican lawmakers see plenty of good in the tea party, but they also see reasons to worry. The movement, which has ignited passion among conservative voters and pushed big government to the forefront of the 2010 election debate, has also stirred quite a bit of controversy. Voters who don't want to privatize Social Security or withdraw from the United Nations could begin to see the tea party and the Republican Party as one and the same.
Paul, the GOP Senate nominee in Kentucky, floated the idea of forming an official caucus for tea-party-minded senators in an interview in the National Review as one way he would shake up Washington. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), one of the movement's favorite incumbents, filed paperwork on Thursday to register a similar group in the House "to promote Americans' call for fiscal responsibility, adherence to the Constitution, and limited government."
In six states -- Kentucky, Nevada, Florida, Utah, Colorado and Minnesota -- tea-party-backed Republican Senate candidates have won nomination or are favored in upcoming primaries. They are attracting outsize attention not only from Democrats and the media, but from conservative leaders such as former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and Fox News host Glenn Beck.
Republicans such as Paul and Sharron Angle in Nevada may hold provocative views, but "they're our nominees and I think we ought to get behind them 100 percent," said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.).
"The candidates are not ours to choose," said Cornyn, chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. "They're the choice of the primary voters in the states, and I think we should respect their choices."
Yet some Republicans worry that tea-party candidates are settling too comfortably into their roles as unruly insurgents and could prove hard to manage if they get elected. Paul, who beat GOP establishment favorite Trey Grayson in Kentucky's primary, told the National Review that he would seek to join forces with GOP Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.), "who are unafraid to stand up" and who have blocked numerous bills advanced by both parties deemed by the pair as expanding government.
"If we get another loud voice in there, like Mike Lee from Utah or Sharron Angle from Nevada, there will be a new nucleus" to advocate causes such as term limits, a balanced-budget amendment and "having bills point to where they are enumerated in the Constitution," Paul said in the interview.
Former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), now a D.C. lobbyist, warned that a robust bloc of rabble-rousers spells further Senate dysfunction. "We don't need a lot of Jim DeMint disciples," Lott said in an interview. "As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them."
But Lott said he's not expecting a tea-party sweep. "I still have faith in the visceral judgment of the American people," he said.
Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), who failed to survive his party's nominating process after running afoul of local tea-party activists, told a local Associated Press reporter last week that the GOP had jeopardized its chance to win Senate seats in Republican-leaning states such as Nevada and Kentucky and potentially in Colorado, where tea-party favorite Ken Buck has surged ahead of Lt. Gov. Jane Norton in their primary battle.
Bennett warned that such candidates are stealing attention from top GOP recruits such as Mike Castle in Delaware and John Hoeven in North Dakota, both of whom are favored to win seats held by Democrats. Nor are they helping the Republican Party to resolve its deeper identity problems, he said.
"That's my concern, that at the moment there is not a cohesive Republican strategy of this is what we're going to do," Bennett told the AP. "And certainly among the tea-party types there's clearly no strategy of this is what we're going to do."
Democrats are hopeful that voters will focus on the potential consequences of tea-party proposals as they decide whether to hand over control of Congress to Republicans. Democratic Party officials said their easiest target, given the recent economic meltdown, is the push to privatize Social Security. A recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found that 48 percent of voters were "very uncomfortable" with the idea of private retirement accounts, while another 18 percent had reservations.
In Nevada, when state Sen. Joe Heck told a local reporter that he was open to a limited and voluntary version of Social Security privatization, his Democratic opponent, Rep. Dina Titus, declared he had endorsed "Sharron Angle and her radical agenda." The Senate candidate has said she wants to phase out Social Security and Medicare as government programs.
Democrats also are trying to tarnish Ron Johnson, a DeMint-endorsed businessman who is backed by tea-party groups and establishment Republicans in his bid take on Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.). When Paul raised his caucus idea, Democrats put the question to Johnson.
"The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is asking Tea Partier Ron Johnson to tell Wisconsin voters if he would join Rand Paul's 'tea party caucus,' " read a DSCC statement released Thursday. Johnson's campaign did not respond to The Post's request for comment.
The Democratic National Committee seized immediately this week on a billboard sponsored by a local tea-party group in Mason City, Iowa, depicting President Obama next to Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Lenin. "Republicans keep saying that they aren't extremists -- but they keep doing things like this," wrote DNC Executive Director Jennifer O'Malley Dillon in a fundraising letter.
The billboard also forced Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who faces a tough challenge from Democrat Roxanne Conlin, to issue a careful rebuke. "I believe that you should always leave personalities out of it and talk policy," he said in an interview.
But Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said he's still not sure of the tea party's broader political impact. "I don't know whether it causes a fracture in the Republican Party or provides more energy," Cardin said. "But there are a lot of Republicans who are uncomfortable, and my gut is, at least in the short term, that will cause some problems."