Waashington Although dozens of Republicans sailed into office with the help of the tea party movement last year, finding a self-identified “Tea Party Republican” on Capitol Hill is harder than you’d think.
The first meeting of the Senate Tea Party Caucus on Thursday attracted just four senators — out of a possible 47 GOP members — willing to describe themselves as members. The event was as notable for who wasn’t there than who was.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., once a tea party darling, has for now declined to join the caucus, whose first meeting was organized by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican whose campaign sprung from the small-government movement, has passed for now. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., showed up to address the group of activists Thursday, but then hustled out of the room, ignoring reporters’ questions about whether he was in or out.
The reluctance shows how the purposefully disjointed movement and its crop of outspoken and controversial leaders, although a powerful force in a campaign known as the “year of the tea party,” are still viewed as risky allies even for conservative politicians.
With the rhetoric of the campaign now translating into politically painful budget cuts, the tea party agenda looks less like the hub of Republican energy in Congress and more like an endpoint of the spectrum.
More than 50 Republicans joined the House Tea Party Caucus in July, during the campaign season. A membership list for the new Congress will be released in February, according to the office of caucus chairwoman Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.
But several new Republicans have said they’re uncertain whether they’ll join the House Tea Party Caucus, citing worries about demands on their time and an early focus on constituent services.
“I’m amazed at how many different directions I’m being pulled,” said Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla. “I represent an incredibly diverse district. There’s a lot of different political persuasions, a lot of different groups. I want to make sure that I represent all of my district, not just one group.”
Others expressed concerns about aligning behind Bachmann, the caucus founder. Like Paul, Bachmann has sought to stand out as a leader among conservatives in the Congress. However, she has alienated some with her verbal gaffes and tendency to seek out the spotlight.
Bachmann and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who along with Paul, DeMint and Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, joined the Senate caucus, have sought to answer such concerns by billing the meetings as listening sessions rather than strategy sessions.