By Philip Rucker
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."
Ultimately, according to several tea party leaders, how these senators vote matters more than whether they join the caucus.
"If they stay true to the principles . . . then to me and most people it wouldn't matter if they were a member of any caucus," said Jim Steineke, leader of the Fox Valley Initiative, a Wisconsin-based tea party group that helped propel Johnson's campaign. "We kind of look at these caucuses with some amusement. These groups don't speak for the tea party."
Still, Kremer said, "we're watching them all. If these guys don't do what we sent them here to do, we'll ride them out just as fast as we rode them in."
In the House, members form dozens of ideological caucuses to bolster their influence. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) started the House Tea Party Caucus last year, and scores of Republicans have joined it. But in the Senate, where members take pride in their individual political brands, caucuses are less common.
Thursday's Senate Tea Party Caucus meeting was an unambiguous sign that the tea party had penetrated Washington. One by one, grass-roots organizers joined Paul, Lee and DeMint at a lectern in front of a white marble wall bearing the giant seal of the Senate. They gave voice to grass-roots activists from a hearing room deep inside the Hart Senate Office Building.
There were salutes for having changed Washington and shouts of "Amen," autographed Constitutions and yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags depicting a coiled rattlesnake.
Most caucus meetings are private affairs involving only lawmakers and top aides, but Thursday's two-hour meeting was open to the public. Some 150 tea party supporters showed up, and they embraced DeMint - who made a name for himself over the past two years as a tea party kingmaker challenging the orthodoxy of the GOP's establishment - as a conquering hero.
"Thank you for sending me some help," DeMint said, referencing his newly elected colleagues.
"You're here today not as a tourist and not as a visitor, but as stockholders," DeMint added. "Some folks are questioning - why are you bringing in these tea party folks from the outside? You don't need a hall pass. This is your place. You can come anytime."
Toomey stopped by for remarks but said he told reporters he is not joining the caucus, while Rubio and Johnson were absent from the part-rally, part-government-hearing tableau.
"If all of a sudden being in the tea party is not something that is happening in Main Street but rather something that's happening in Washington, D.C., the tea party all of a sudden becomes some sort of movement run by politicians," Rubio said in an interview with the Shark Tank, a Florida political Web site. "It's gonna lose its effectiveness, and I'm concerned about that."
Lee said he, Paul and DeMint are "staying cognizant and respectful of the fact that the tea party movement is itself leaderless."
"It's an organic, grass-roots, spontaneously created political phenomenon," Lee said in an interview. "So we're not purporting to speak for the movement."
But he added: "I am what I am, and I am a tea party man through and through. It's a label I'm happy to wear."
Staff writer Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.