WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders are inching closer to a deal on how much to cut federal spending for the next six months — and pretty much ignoring the spending-cut absolutists of the tea party, the grass-roots movement that's losing influence despite having helped elect dozens of Republicans last November.
Tea party activists had hoped to send a loud message Thursday to Republican lawmakers, telling them at a long-scheduled Capitol Hill rally either to stick to tough budget-slashing principles or face the movement's wrath.
Instead, only a few hundred people showed up.
Meanwhile, inside the Capitol, experienced lawmakers of both parties reported progress toward a pragmatic budget compromise.
The weak rally showing could boomerang on tea party activists by emboldening the GOP leaders who are negotiating the federal budget with Democrats and the White House.
How all this plays out in the politics of the 2012 elections is anybody's guess, but it wouldn't be the first time a populist movement sputtered after making a splash in an election. Remember the GOP's "Contract with America" success in 1994, when Republicans won control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years? The GOP lost the next two elections.
Evidence is piling up that the tea party movement has passed its peak. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll March 11-13 found that only 32 percent of Americans viewed the tea party favorably, down 5 points from December. Those who viewed it unfavorably totaled 47 percent, up 4 from December. The survey's error margin was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The tea party appears to be suffering three ailments common to grass-roots efforts that suddenly vault onto the political scene: Mainstream politicians tend to adopt enough of the movement's ideas to dilute their power, movement backers learn that the legislative system isn't easily navigated and activists simply get worn out and lose energy.
"The problem in American politics is for a reform movement to maintain viability for very long," said G. Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.
"Some people are saying, 'Wow, I need a breather,' " said Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation. "People are tired and we're in a lull period with no elections."
Then, too, budget fights in Congress rarely rally the faithful.
"It's just a little different when you're in the midst of a campaign and other issues like health care. Budget debates, they don't fire the same passions of last year," said Brad Coker, the managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, a nonpartisan polling firm.
Top Republican lawmakers remain careful to praise the tea party, but they're also showing a will to compromise on the year's first big budget test: setting spending limits for the federal government for the final six months of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
The government's authority to spend will run out April 8 unless Congress acts by then. Tea party backers who say they'd rather shut down the government than compromise on severe spending cuts are finding themselves marginalized.
The movement's loss of energy was obvious Thursday. Tea party supporters had promoted a noon rally for weeks to "turn screws on Congress." Under a steady drizzle, only about 500 people stood on the muddy Capitol grounds chanting, "We want less." Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., told them, "It's time to pick a fight."
But no major Republican congressional leaders showed up.
Inside the Capitol, GOP leaders tried to cool activists' expectations.
"I'm glad that they're here," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "I'm glad they're engaged in the process."
But he offered a sober reminder about the limits of GOP power: "We can't impose our will on the Senate. All we can do is to fight for all of the spending cuts that we can get an agreement to, and all of the spending limitations as well."
Congressional leaders and Vice President Joe Biden appear to have settled on finding $33 billion in cuts, and they've already cut $10 billion, so they need to find only $23 billion more in a budget totaling $3.8 trillion, or far less than 1 percent.
That's way less than the $61 billion that the tea party protesters demand for fiscal 2011 as a down payment on far deeper cuts later.
"Cutting $61 billion is the starting point," said Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. "It isn't the goal."
Negotiators are still working out details, but the spirit of compromise is in the air, as many Republicans realize that to win elections, particularly with moderate voters, they need to show a willingness to work with others — and perhaps not to appear too tightly bound to the tea party.
"The tea party isn't the reason why everybody won. But it is one of the reasons why we have a Republican majority," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a freshman who was elected with tea party backing. "Their voices need to be heard. And they need to hear from us."
Another tea party-supported freshman, Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., praised Boehner's handling of the issue, despite tea party activists condemning him as a sellout. "He is committed to cutting spending and creating jobs, as we all are," she said.
Congress soon will consider increasing the debt ceiling, which is expected to hit the $14.3 trillion limit as soon as mid-April. Without a new ceiling, the government would lose its borrowing authority.
Later this year, a fight is likely over funding the government for fiscal 2012. Longer-term funding of politically sensitive programs, including Medicare and Social Security, may well get caught up in that fight. A bipartisan group of six senators continues to meet privately to discuss a plan that addresses all spending, and taxes too.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, a veteran lawmaker as a House appropriations subcommittee chairman, is one of many GOP leaders who are eager to move on to those larger topics.
"I understand where they (tea party backers) are coming from, but the bigger picture is the 2012 budget," he said.
"Do we need to make the reductions in the 2011 budget? Yes, we want to; that's what we're arguing with the Senate about. And we need to come to some decision to finish the budget year. But 2012 is where I think the real debates are that I think are important."
Still, Tea Party Nation founder Phillips is unhappy, and vows to seek a Republican primary challenger to Boehner. Instead of jamming the brakes on spending, Phillips said, Boehner appears to be mashing the spending accelerator.
"What John Boehner is doing is driving by, smoking a cigarette," Phillips said. "John Boehner is probably a fun guy to sit down with, play 18 holes with, but that's not what he's there for."
Yet even Phillips concedes that the tea party's momentum is waning.
"There's a bit of fatigue in the movement that's settling in," he said.
(Erika Bolstad and David Goldstein contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2011