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FreedomWorks gathers GOP lawmakers to refocus on tea party goals

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010; A01

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."

FreedomWorks, a Washington-based conservative group, is one of several national organizations that spent millions of dollars helping to elect tea-party-backed candidates across the country.

At its two-day retreat in Baltimore, Armey and the group's president, Matt Kibbe, were expected to talk to incoming and returning Republicans about not setting aside their advocacy for lower taxes and spending in the interest of finding favor with Republican leaders or scoring valuable committee assignments. It is unknown how many freshmen attended the retreat; FreedomWorks did not open the event to the media Thursday and declined to characterize attendance.

Incoming Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) was planning to attend the event Thursday. "My perspective is that it's an opportunity for me to hear from Dick Armey as it relates to his experience in Washington and Congress," Scott said in an interview. "My objective is to take a look at, from a policy standpoint, how to fundamentally transform Washington back to a conservative construct."

Leadership retreats and orientation sessions for incoming members of Congress are nothing new. The conservative Heritage Foundation has been hosting such an orientation session for years, said Brian Darling, Heritage's vice president for government relations.

Darling noted, however, that the program typically focuses on policy discussions with panels of expert speakers on such issues as health-care reform or foreign policy. There is also schooling on how to hire a staff and other nuts-and-bolts topics - but no focus on legislative strategy.

"Ours is more educational on policy issues that are going to be very important to the new members coming into Congress," Darling said.

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.), who helped recruit some of the candidates who went on to become tea party favorites and were invited to FreedomWorks' retreat, said he harbors no grudge.

"I don't think that our leadership team that is coming together right now is going to give any of those freshmen any direction other than to represent their districts and remember that the American people told them on November 2nd: 'We want something different in Washington,' " Westmoreland said. "We can't go to the same policies that we had when we were in power for the 12 years that we were there because we expanded government. They want something different, and so I think that's exactly what Dick Armey's telling them."

Staff writers Paul Kane and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

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