Senate Tea Party Caucus holds first meeting without some who had embraced banner

The 2010 election brought scores of tea party-backed candidates into Washington.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; 12:00 AM

The Republican senators who rode the tea party wave to victory in the fall are now weighing whether that label will help them on Capitol Hill or become a scarlet letter.

Thursday offered the first clear illustration of their situation as the newly formed Senate Tea Party Caucus held its inaugural meeting without three of the senators who won election under the tea party banner.

"I sprang from the tea party and have great respect for what it represents," said Sen. Ronald H. Johnson (R-Wis.), a polyester and plastics manufacturer who entered politics last year and defeated Sen. Russell Feingold, a Democrat who had held his seat for 18 years.

Johnson emerged as one of the tea party movement's bright stars but has decided not to join the Tea Party Caucus because he fears doing so could be divisive. Instead, he wants to bring tea party ideas under the broader Republican umbrella.

"The reason I ran for the U.S. Senate was to not only stop the Obama agenda but reverse it," he said in a statement. "I believe our best chance of doing that is to work towards a unified Republican Conference so that's where I will put my energy."

The decisions of Johnson and Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) not to join the Tea Party Caucus underscore the fissures within the Republican Party as it seeks to build an effective governing coalition in Washington while satisfying an emboldened conservative base outside the Beltway. And for the tea party, the new Congress presents a test of whether the movement's activist momentum can continue within the rhythms and business of governing.

Freshman Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) joined Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) in starting the Tea Party Caucus as a venue for promoting tea party ideals - cutting spending and bringing down the federal debt, for example. The only other senator to join was freshman Jerry Moran (R-Kan.).

"Some people said when the tea party was elected, Washington would co-opt us," Paul said at Thursday's meeting. "The interesting thing is we're already co-opting Washington."

But Johnson, Rubio and Toomey are avoiding this association and instead working within the Senate's existing Republican structures to influence the legislative agenda. The three may have rationalized that they would stand a better chance of advancing their ideas from inside the clubby confines of the Senate establishment. Rubio said the reason he was not joining was because he doesn't want politicians in Congress "co-opting the mantle" of a grass-roots movement.

Rubio and Toomey were fixtures in Republican politics long before the tea party emerged. Rubio was a Florida House speaker who once carried an American Express card issued by the state GOP; Toomey was a former congressman who ran the Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative political action committee.

In not joining the caucus, the three have frustrated some tea party leaders nationally and in their home states.

"Obviously it's disappointing," said Amy Kremer, a former flight attendant from Georgia who now chairs Tea Party Express, the national group that organized a cross-country tea party bus tour this past summer. "The people in the movement are wondering why they're not standing with these other tea party conservatives."

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