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Tea Party Caucus Launches as a Work in Progress

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Sen. Rand Paul didn’t have much to say Wednesday about the new Senate Tea Party Caucus.

The Senate Tea Party Caucus is scheduled to launch today. But its mission and potential for political and legislative influence in an independent-minded chamber governed by personal relationships remain open questions.

Already, a handful of freshman Republicans who garnered the backing of tea party activists in 2010 have declined to join or claimed to have given the matter little thought. And some veteran GOP Senators, while expressing strong support for tea party principles, doubted the group’s ability to affect policy.

“I haven’t seen a caucus in the United States Senate that met, much less got an initiative, because I think that the Senate, institutionally, is so different than the House,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), a former House Member, said Wednesday. “I think it’s good and healthy for the advocacy. But from the standpoint of actually the work that’s going to be done and the impetus behind moving a majority of the Members in one way, I think the personal relationships over here have a much better impact.”

But, weather permitting, the Tea Party Caucus will meet at least once, at 10 a.m. today in Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building. The group is led by its three inaugural members, Republican Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Rand Paul (Ky.), who was the driving force behind the caucus’s formation.

DeMint is chairman of the Senate Republican Steering Committee, which has unofficial jurisdiction for all things conservative within the GOP Conference. Whether a Republican Senator is looking to get a conservative piece of legislation to the floor or influence the Conference message in that direction, the Steering Committee has long been the vehicle to accomplish those goals.

DeMint said a thriving Senate Tea Party Caucus would not change that, explaining that the new group is intended to function as an “external” arm of the Steering Committee that will focus on outreach to voters, including conservative and tea party activists. DeMint, who throughout the 2010 cycle supported the tea-party-backed Republicans now in the Senate — sometimes to the dismay of GOP leadership — stressed that the group remains a work in progress.

“We don’t know exactly how the Tea Party [Caucus] is going to work yet. We just want to open the door and make sure that folks who helped get us elected know that we want to be their voice and listen to what they’re saying,” he added, just before convening Wednesday’s weekly Steering Committee meeting. “What we have to do is prove that this is a legitimate tea party effort.”

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