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'Tea party' activists keep watch on Congress' new class

Republicans elected on the 'tea party' platform can expect pressure to stay true to the cause.

January 03, 2011|By Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau
(Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — As nearly 100 new Republican lawmakers settle into their Capitol Hill digs this week, some will get a pop-in visit — before the boxes are unpacked and the phones start ringing — aimed at reminding them how they got there.

"We want them to know that we know our folks helped them get elected and we're there for them," said Mark Meckler, whose group, Tea Party Patriots, is sending activists to visit lawmakers' offices hours after the swearing-in Wednesday of the 112th Congress.

It's a pointed reminder for the new class, roughly half of which was elected with "tea party" support or echoed the movement's call for smaller government. Now those lawmakers are standard-bearers of the tea party's hopes and ideals — a responsibility activists like Meckler plan to make sure is not set aside when the voting starts.

His group plans to monitor the new class and fire up activists before key votes. Other tea-party-affiliated groups are planning regular meetings with lawmakers, salons to discuss favored legislation and online tools that will help voters follow their progress.

The goal is to keep the new members focused on the movement's priorities — slashing federal spending, opposing all tax increases, repealing the healthcare bill and adhering to its interpretation of the Constitution — and out of the clutches of Washington.

"We don't have unrealistic expectations," Meckler said. "But we do expect people who got elected on the tea party platform to behave in a tea party manner."

That will be no easy task. The passionate and sometimes controversial activists of the tea party are running headlong into a familiar collision: Movement idealism, meet Beltway deal-making.

Many grass-roots movements have learned how hard it is to remain outsiders in a place run by insiders and still accomplish something, said Martin Cohen, a professor of political science at James Madison University, who is studying the tea party movement and its parallels to the rise of the Christian right in the 1980s and 1990s.

In Washington, vowing not to compromise can be a self-imposed exile into irrelevancy. Ideological purity is in short supply. The lure of a party power can be strong. And the currency of the movement is its grass-roots engagement, Cohen said, something famously tricky to maintain in the face of defeats.

"If I had to bet on whether they would change Washington or whether Washington would change them, I would bet on Washington," he said.

Tea party leaders say they're prepared to avoid the pitfalls that have hobbled past political movements. They argue their activists are more engaged and committed. They're not advocating a single issue but a bigger campaign to "restore America." And perhaps most notable, they've proved a willingness to punish straying lawmakers at the ballot box.

"These guys know these are not people to be trifling with. They're organized and effective," said former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, whose advocacy group, FreedomWorks, is a leading organizer in the tea party movement and helped unseat Republican Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah in a primary.

There was evidence that Republicans felt this pressure as they wrapped up business during December's lame-duck session of Congress.

The party was largely united on issues of taxing and spending, successfully killing a bill that would have funded the government through fiscal year 2011, as well as early implementation of the healthcare bill. Many Senate Republicans publicly swore off earmarks, a favorite symbol of federal largesse. In the House, incoming Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) announced a new rule that would force lawmakers to cite constitutional authority for every piece of legislation they propose.

But the session also gave tea party leaders reason to be worried. They lost a campaign to install their favorites as chairmen on two powerful House committees. And activists were divided over the compromise tax deal negotiated by President Obama and Republicans leaders.

The split spotlighted fractures within the movement. Tea Party Patriots, a network that links dozens of local groups and touts its outsider status, criticized the compromise as a backroom deal. FreedomWorks was more pragmatic, supporting it as the best possible solution to keep taxes low.

"There is no 'the tea party,' " said incoming Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who won with local tea party support.

Still, FreedomWorks has a long list of devoted activists that makes it hard for Republicans to ignore. The group is in close contact with the GOP leadership. And it plans to host monthly salons to discuss legislation and quarterly breakfasts with Armey, who is offering his services as a mentor.

He calls the strategy the "inside-outside" model: a courtship of allies on the inside, and pressure other lawmakers with an outside blitz of e-mails and phone calls.

"We didn't have that in 1995," Armey said of his days as majority leader. That class fell short of its goals, hamstrung by infighting and sinking public support.

Others warn that the tea party could end up like the Christian right, which emerged from the grass roots in the late 1970s but eventually lost its independence as leaders were absorbed into the party establishment.

"Those guys became an appendage of the Republican Party," said Richard Viguerie, a conservative consultant active in the religious right. "They loved getting calls from George Bush — 41 and 43 — being invited to bill-signing. They became fettered."

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

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