FreedomWorks gathers GOP lawmakers to refocus on tea party goals

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has supported candidates the Republican party establishment has either ignored or actively campaigned against.
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010; 12:34 AM

In Baltimore on Thursday, former House majority leader Richard K. Armey, the chairman of tea party backer FreedomWorks, exhorted a roomful of incoming members of Congress not to stray from the small-government principles that propelled them to power. Don't be dazzled by plum committee assignments or other enticements from Republican leaders, he cautioned, if they come at an ideological price.

In Washington, those same Republican leaders continued to make overtures to the new class of conservatives by offering them unprecedented roles to shape the debate in the coming legislative session.

Everyone, it seems, is positioning to lay claim to the Republican Class of 2010, providing an early glimpse of the tension that emerges when a movement based entirely on its outsider status is suddenly on the inside.

Are the freshmen selling out if they partner with the very establishment they derided on the campaign trail? Or have they already won by capturing the attention of leaders and gaining a seat at the table?

Most of those reached Thursday were careful to insist that there is no tension - that GOP leaders, the incoming class and even third-party organizers such as FreedomWorks all share the common goals of reducing taxes, spending, earmarks and the national debt.

"Dick Armey is a very dear friend of mine, and I wholeheartedly support Dick not only intending to educate but to arm each one of these students, or new members, with the desire and ability to be successful," said Rep. Pete Sessions (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Sen.-elect Mike Lee (R-Utah), whose stunning upset of Sen. Robert F. Bennett in the spring came with heavy help from FreedomWorks, said from the retreat in Baltimore, "There is nothing FreedomWorks stands for that hasn't been lock step with what the Republican Party stands for."

Beneath such attempts at unity, however, were signs that the partnership between insider and outsider is delicate. Organizers for FreedomWorks offered little detail of their two-day retreat for fear of scaring off incoming members who are jittery about angering GOP leaders.

While leaders on Capitol Hill would not criticize the retreat publicly, some were more than willing to privately note the irony of Armey - a former Republican conference chairman and majority leader who backed large spending bills full of earmarks - warning people not to trust leadership.

Presumed Speaker-to-be John Boehner (Ohio) and Eric A. Cantor (Va.), the likely incoming majority leader, were doing their part this week to reach out to the crop of more than 80 fellow Republicans who won last week.

In a letter to newly elected Republicans, the two announced the creation of a spot on the House leadership team for a freshman, chosen by the freshmen. Two other new members (up from one) will sit on the crucial steering committee, which decides chairmanships and assignments. And yet another freshman will sit on the GOP's policy panel.

"The incoming GOP freshman class for the 112th Congress is no ordinary freshman class, and this is no ordinary time for our nation," Boehner and Cantor wrote in the joint letter. "Accordingly, the incoming GOP freshman class will have a larger voice at the leadership table and on the steering committee than previous GOP freshman classes in previous congresses."

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