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Senate Tea Party Caucus holds first meeting

The group promises to push for dramatic cuts in the federal budget, but some 'tea party' darlings, including Marco Rubio of Florida and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, do not attend.

January 27, 2011|By Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Senate Tea Party Caucus met for the first time Thursday, showing itself to be a still-tiny group with big goals for slashing the federal budget.

The meeting was organized by freshman Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), and conservative firebrand Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). They were joined by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who said he would be joining the caucus.

The group promised to advocate for dramatic budget cuts and touted what it saw as an early success.

"I think we're already co-opting Washington," Paul said. "I went to my first State of the Union this week, and guess who's against earmarks? The president of the United States has been co-opted by the 'tea party'! I don't think he's necessarily happy about it."

"The difference is we mean it," Lee said.

Paul touted his proposed budget, which would cut $500 billion in a year by eliminating the Department of Commerce, gutting the Department of Education and trimming defense spending.

Several activists at the open meeting, held in a Senate hearing room, wondered why the lawmakers weren't trying to balance the budget by proposing $1.5 trillion in cuts.

The meeting was also notable for who didn't attend. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), once considered a tea party darling, declined an invitation to join. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, a conservative who says he was energized to run for office by the federal bailouts, did not attend. Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey addressed the group but scurried out of the room after his remarks, ignoring reporters' questions about his membership in the caucus.

Toomey spoke about his proposal for handling a looming vote on raising the debt ceiling, a move the White House and economists say is necessary to keep the government from defaulting on the debt. Toomey called that notion a "myth."

The members acknowledged that the tea party label and the movement's hard-line views on the role of was government and spending are not always politically popular -- even within the GOP.

"But what's seem doable here is not enough," DeMint said, later thanking the crowd for "being a part of saving our country."

The senators were joined by several fixtures of the conservative movement, including anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, former Clinton White House gadfly Gary Aldrich and Matt Kibbe from FreedomWorks, a tea party-affiliated group run by ex-Rep. Dick Armey.

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