Reporting from Washington — There are plenty of Republicans in the House hoping to capitalize on the activism and conservative zeal of the "tea party" movement. But only 28 put their names on a list of members of the newly formed Tea Party Caucus.
The caucus met for the first time Wednesday and emerged declaring that its members were there to listen to — not lead or even vouch for — the conservative political movement.
"We are not the mouthpiece of the tea party. We are not taking the tea party and controlling it from Washington, D.C.," caucus chairwoman and founder Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said at a news conference after the meeting. "We are also not here to vouch for the tea party."
Bachmann's careful disclaimer shows just how touchy the subject is. Caucuses are widely used as a way for members to signal their political and personal allegiances. But in the case of the tea party, Republican politicians have generally preferred to support the effort less formally, with encouraging words and occasional appearances at rallies.
The distance has allowed lawmakers to avoid claims that they are trying to co-opt the grass-roots movement. It also protects them from having to defend the controversial views that occasionally mingle with the movement's core message of limited government and lower taxes.
Bachmann did not discuss the formation of the group with House Republican leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, a Boehner spokesman said. Bachmann said Wednesday that she did notify House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of her plans.
For now, the caucus is a Republican group, including Reps. Steve King of Iowa, Joe Wilson of South Carolina, Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, Tom Price of Georgia, Joe L. Barton and Pete Sessions of Texas, and the third-ranking Republican in leadership, Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the House Republican Conference.
Bachmann said a Democrat had approached her about joining, but she did not identify the person.
Republican Whip Eric Cantor's office has said he will not be joining the caucus. Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said the congressman did not join caucuses other than the House Republican Conference.
Though they do not claim to speak for the tea party, caucus members attempted to defend the movement from recent accusations that it had tolerated racism within its ranks. A small but diverse group of tea party activists spoke at the news conference, including an immigrant from Colombia, another from Brazil and Danielle Hollars, a 32-year-old African American mother of five from Virginia.
"We are not terrorists, we are not racist," Hollars said. "We are patriots."
Rep. Dan Burton said the "various ethnic groups" represented should dispel any notions of racism.
Bachmann said the caucus would be a "receptacle" for tea party activists' views and opinions, and she hoped to use video conferencing to help the caucus hear from "real people with very real lives." She would not comment on whether it might introduce legislation on the House floor as a result.
Bachmann wasn't the first to come up with the idea of a caucus. Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul has said he has plans for one in the Senate, if he gets elected. Paul's father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), was not listed as a member of the House caucus.
Other members of the caucus include Cliff Stearns and Gus M. Bilirakis of Florida, Gary G. Miller of Diamond Bar, Lamar Smith of Texas, Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland and Walter B. Jones of North Carolina.