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No Rush to Offer Tea Party Solutions

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Jeff Flake says tea party activists are more focused on engaging locally.

Every interest group in town is vying for the attention of the super committee members except the very movement that drove the federal deficit to the top of Congress' agenda.

Tea party leaders can be found this fall hawking a Constitution-themed coloring book, riding a tour bus across the country and endorsing 2012 candidates but not issuing policy proposals for cutting the deficit.

"It's generally not what we do," said Mark Meckler, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, which is leading a campaign to encourage schools to teach lessons drawn from the Constitution. "We are an organization that's designed to push the debate toward fiscal responsibility. Our job is not to come up with policies."

Tea party activists won political credibility for being an impressive populist force. But in the absence of something specific to oppose, they have mostly fallen silent as a Congressional panel tasked with finding at least $1.2 trillion in savings begins its work.

Even though tea party activists cannot be found roaming the Capitol halls with savings proposals in hand, their influence was palpable last week when conservative House lawmakers abandoned a proposed stopgap spending measure, embarrassing top GOP leaders with a failed floor vote and forcing them to find a last-minute additional $100 million cut.

"[Tea partyers] are meeting at home and engaging there," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee who voted against both versions of the spending bill. "I don't think it matters where they are or what you call them."

George Behan, spokesman for Appropriations ranking member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), agreed. "Their imprint is on both the super committee and the leadership," he said. "They've done their damage."

"The tea party deserves credit for bringing the issue of the debt and deficit to the forefront as did [presidential candidate Ross] Perot in the '90s," said John Pitney, who studies Republican Congressional and electoral politics at Claremont McKenna College in California. "Now that it's time to identify specific cuts, that's not something that this political movement is well-equipped to do."

When it comes to voicing dissatisfaction, however, the activists are quick on the draw.

"By holding [lawmakers'] feet to the fire, we will be able to kill Obama's stimulus bill," Todd Cefaratti, founder of TheTeaParty.net, wrote in an email to supporters sent just hours after President Barack Obama detailed his jobs proposal earlier this month. "We've already sent 162,000 letters to Congress demanding that they declare this bill dead on arrival."

And should the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction come up with a proposal that includes any kind of tax increases, conservatives in Washington, D.C., expect tea partyers to come out in full force.

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