WASHINGTON — Conservative GOP superstar Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Mike Pence of Indiana had already spoken at a tea party rally by the time Idaho's newest Republican congressman was introduced as "Rule Labrador."
Rep. Raul Labrador corrected the emcee, but it was an awkward introduction to the crowd of several hundred, which numbered far fewer than the thousands of grass-roots activists who swarmed the Capitol at the height of the health care reform debate last year.
Thursday's rally crowd stood in a park across the street from the Capitol, hoping to remind lawmakers they should adhere to the budget-slashing principles that got them elected, or face the consequences of the new political movement.
It may have been the dismal spring day, but the meager turnout illustrated what many saw as the waning influence of the tea party movement, particularly its effect on the budget negotiations going on across the street. Away from the lousy weather, pragmatic lawmakers from both parties were closing in on a deal to end their budget stalemate for the second half of this fiscal year.
Among them was Idaho's other Republican congressman, Mike Simpson, a House appropriations subcommittee chairman who had spent the day in three separate budget hearings for the 2012 budget and was anticipating being drawn into negotiations to end the lingering 2011 stalemate.
The two Idahoans — and how each spent the day Thursday — offered a near-perfect illustration of the divergence among House Republicans as they grapple with their internal party dynamics as well as spending decisions.
On one side are the Labradors, part of a freshman class elected on an anti-spending wave, eager to fulfill campaign promises to cut, and deeply.
On the other: the Simpsons, aware that governing requires compromise, and worried that even as they fight a battle over 2011 spending, the biggest fight looming is about the 2012 budget cuts they must make to address deficit spending.
Then of course, come the 2012 elections.
"There are some who are willing to shut the government down in order to have their position prevail," Simpson said Thursday. "But I don't think the majority of the members of our conference want to shut the government down. I don't think it's anyone's best interest to shut government down. I don't think it's in Republicans' or Democrats' best interest."
Republican leaders are also aware of public opinion. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll March 11-13 found 32 percent of respondents viewed the tea party favorably, down 5 percentage points from December.
Those who have an unfavorable view of the tea party was at 47 percent, up 4 percentage points from December. The new unfavorable rating is as high as the ones registered by the Democratic and Republican parties themselves. About 1,200 people were surveyed, and the margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Thursday, though, Labrador embraced the movement. He told the crowd at the rally that he was "a tea partyer before there was a tea party." He also reminded them that Republicans need to keep in mind they won back the House of Representatives because their candidates promised to address spending.
"The tea party isn't the reason why everybody won. But it is one of the reasons why we have a Republican majority," Labrador said. "Their voices need to be heard. And they need to hear from us."
Labrador said Thursday he doesn't favor a government shutdown that some tea party backers have said is necessary to avoid compromise; however, Labrador voted against the most recent budget extension that avoided such a shutdown.
Simpson, who voted for the extension, argued for getting past the 2011 spending battles and start looking ahead at what it must do about Medicare, Social Security and other politically sensitive programs in order to address deficits.
A bipartisan group of six senators, including Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, continues to meet privately to discuss a deficit-attacking plan.
"I understand where they are coming from," Simpson said of the tea party, "but the bigger picture is the 2012 budget."
"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," he said. "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."
(David Lightman and William Douglas contributed to this report.)