"It's an evolution. Not an organization," said Mark Skoda,… (Ed Reinke / Associated Press )
Reporting from Washington — Several major players in the conservative "tea party" movement announced on Thursday a new federation to help spread its message advocating smaller and more decentralized government.
But don't call them organized.
The National Tea Party Federation will issue news releases, respond to critics and help get the word out about tea party rallies and initiatives, organizers said. But they were careful to note it would not change the loose, grass-roots structure of the movement.
"It's an evolution," said tea party activist Mark Skoda. "Not an organization. We're not co-opting a movement. We're not creating a new leadership structure."
Still, the creation of the federation is an acknowledgment of the limits of an undisciplined and disjointed political movement.
In the year since it arose out of a series of protests across the country, the tea party movement has mobilized thousands and established itself as the most active force in conservative politics. But it has also openly aired embarrassing internal disputes and has been slow to respond to critics who've painted protesters as racists.
"It took us 72 hours to respond to John Lewis," Skoda said, referring to the longtime Georgia Democratic congressman and civil rights leader who said a tea party protester used a racial epithet during a rally against the healthcare bill last month.
"We're not needing to meet every week. But there will now be a way to have a call to arms to respond to attacks with a crisp and clear message," Skoda said.
The announcement comes as the tea party movement is preparing for another round of protests -- and the scrutiny that follows. Groups across the country are planning tax-day rallies next week, including large events in Washington, Atlanta, Sacramento and Orlando, Fla.
Organizers said the federation would not be raising money or hiring a staff. Decisions would be made via conference calls among the various groups.
Skoda's Memphis Tea Party was one of 21 groups that had signed on to the federation as of Thursday. The list included the Nashville-based Tea Party Nation, the organizers of a tea party convention this year, and Tea Party Express, a bus tour currently hosting rallies across the country.
The federation also had formed alliances with an additional 19 organizations, some of which were longtime stalwarts of Republican politics. They include anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, the socially conservative Family Research Council, National Taxpayers Union, FreedomWorks and Republican direct mail consultant Richard Viguerie.
Missing from the announcement was Tea Party Patriots, the best organized online network of local tea party groups.
Skoda said Tea Party Patriots was invited to join but was taking a "wait-and-see approach." A spokeswoman for the group did not respond to a request for comment.