WASHINGTON — The Senate Tea Party Caucus — all four members — met for the first time Thursday before a small crowd of supporters on a snow-covered Washington day.
What the caucus and audience lacked in size they made up for in enthusiasm and energy. New Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., fired up the crowd along with Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., by preaching the gospel of deficit reduction and proclaiming that the tea party already has made its presence felt on Capitol Hill and in the White House.
"Some said when people who came from the tea party were elected that Washington would co-opt us," Paul said to a chorus of "No!" from a crowd of about 150. "The interesting thing is I think we're co-opting Washington."
"Before we were even sworn in, the Republican caucus got together ... they forswore and said, 'No more earmarks,' " Paul continued. "Are they going to co-opt us? I went to my first State of the Union the other day, and guess who is now against earmarks. The president of the United States has been co-opted by the tea party!"
Paul repeated his call to reduce budget deficits swiftly and he trumpeted a bill he's introduced to cut $500 billion in government spending in one year. Among the belt-tightening provisions, the bill would eliminate funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, slash all Education Department programs except for Pell Grants, which he'd cap at $16.23 million, eliminate several Department of Agriculture programs and transfer Coast Guard funding from the Department of Homeland Security to the Defense Department.
"Most of official Washington think that's way too dramatic and we can never do it," Paul said. "But guess what? It's not enough. ... It barely gets us going in the right direction."
Lisa Miller, founder of Washington's Tea Party WDC, agrees. She pressed DeMint to go even further and introduce legislation that contains at least $1.4 trillion in cuts per year.
"If you could just put forward something that allows us to see we could reach a balanced budget this year or the next year, the tea party would be much more energized in this process," she said.
"If I put down the things that have to be cut this year to cut $1.5 trillion, it would probably kill the idea," DeMint told Miller. "If we could get a group of folks who say, 'Here's how you can do $1.5 trillion this year,' yeah, I'd be on the team. But what we're trying to find is how we can get 60 votes in the Senate."
On another fiscal matter, Paul urged tea party supporters to help find some way to link raising the federal debt ceiling "to something of value." The government could run out of money by March 31 if Congress doesn't act to increase the government's $14.3 trillion debt limit.
"It can't be a one-time token cut," he said. "I want to link cuts to the debt ceiling. We also need to transform the process; we need to force them to balance the budget by law."
DeMint, who campaigned for several tea party candidates last year, had the look of a proud papa at Thursday's gathering. He thanked tea party supporters for giving him conservative, deficit-hawk foot soldiers in Congress.
"Thank you for them, for Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey. ... We got a great new group of folks from all over the country because of the tea party," DeMint said. "There's not one Republican here who does not understand that they would have not won the election without tea party support."
Several Republican lawmakers were absent from the caucus launch. Rubio, a new senator from Florida, didn't attend. Sen. Toomey, of Pennsylvania, dropped by to push his bill that would order the government to prioritize paying the interest on its debt, then left to attend a Budget Committee hearing.
Toomey's bill is an effort to short-circuit Obama administration claims that the U.S. could trigger a global financial crisis if Congress doesn't raise the debt ceiling.
Rubio has expressed concerns that a tea party caucus would infringe on the grass-roots nature of the movement, a position Paul disagrees with.
"How will they get their agenda passed if we don't talk to them?" Paul said. "This is all about talking to the grass roots.'
DeMint said he didn't consider the paucity of Republican senators who attended a snub of the tea party. He said he considered the caucus more of an informal "sit-down" sounding group than a formal caucus.
"It is not a caucus run by politicians," DeMint said, "We wanted to create a forum for people to come in and unload on us."
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