By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010; 5:00 PM
A group of two dozen House Republicans, led by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), officially launched the congressional Tea Party Caucus on Wednesday, strongly defending the grass-roots conservative movement as a positive force in American politics and repeatedly insisting it does not have racist motives.
Many congressional Republicans have long associated themselves with the "tea party" activists who emerged during last year's stimulus and health-care debates and sharply oppose President Obama's agenda, but Bachmann's move to create this caucus formalizes their relationship with the GOP.
Bachmann and her allies say the caucus will invite activists to Capitol Hill, solicit their ideas and perhaps turn them into policies.
The members did not specify what impact the new caucus might have. Most Republican members of Congress already oppose most legislation that the tea party dislikes, reducing the need for a caucus to push the GOP to the right. And House Republicans already have a group of its more conservative members called the Republican Study Committee.
The Tea Party Caucus's creation creates a choice for some Republicans who want to capture the energy of the tea party but not defend its more controversial elements. Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), the No. 3 leader in the House GOP, has joined the group, but another conservative, Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the No. 2 leader, opted against doing so. Cantor said he did not join in part because the "beauty" of the tea party movement is that it's "organic and it's certainly not of Washington."
"We decided to form a Tea Party Caucus for one very important reason, to listen to the concerns of the tea party," said Bachmann. "What we are not, we are not the mouthpiece of the tea party, we are not taking the tea party and controlling it from Washington, D.C. I am not the head of the tea party, nor are any of these members of Congress. The people are head of the tea party."
Bachmann, long the informal leader of the tea party in Congress as a popular speaker at movement rallies during the health-care debate, further established that role by founding the caucus. She filled out the paperwork to create it last week and then led Wednesday's meeting, which included caucus members and two dozen activists, most from the Washington area.
The meeting was closed to reporters, as are most congressional caucuses. At the news conference afterward, members of Congress aggressively tried to show the diversity of the movement, at a time when it is battling accusations of racism. After Bachmann spoke, the next four speakers were all activists who had come to Capitol Hill for the event. None was white.
"I am here because we want to tell America, we are not terrorists, we are not racists, we are Americans who care about our country and the future and our grandchildren," said Danielle Hollars, an African American woman from Woodbridge.
Rep. Dan Burton (Ind.), a caucus member, said the event Wednesday "should dispel a lot of the rumors about racism and other things" in the tea party.
"We have people from all ethnic backgrounds who today are here to talk about how they feel about American constitutional government and lower taxes and lower spending, so I hope all of you in the media today will carry that message back that the tea party movement is all across this country, there are all races involved and all ethnics groups," Burton said.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (Tex.), another member, made a similar point, saying, "Under the definitions today, all of those who voted against Alan Keyes in 1996, who I voted for, must have been racists." Keyes is an African American politician who unsuccessfully sought the GOP presidential nomination in 1996.
Bachmann played down the need for the group to play a big role beyond bringing tea party activists to Capitol Hill.
"Our whole purpose is to be a listening ear to the tea party and nothing more," Bachmann said.