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What Happened to the Tea Party Caucus?

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call
Bachmann still touts the Tea Party Caucus, despite its recent inactivity.

Democrats slam the group as a haven for radicals while conservatives tout membership among their bona fides, but the fact is Rep. Michele Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus has been inactive for several months.

The caucus, much heralded and well-covered by the press when it was created in 2010 as a congressional conduit for the national movement of the same name, has not announced a public meeting since July, and the group’s Twitter account has been silent since September.

“To say we haven’t been real active is an understatement. We haven’t done anything,” said Texas Republican Rep. Joe L. Barton, a member of the group.

That’s not to say Bachmann has been inactive over that period of time — the Minnesota Republican was a contender for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination from June 2011 to January 2012, during which time the group held no public meetings. After dropping out of the running for the presidency, she was narrowly re-elected to her seat in the House.

Since then, she has been keeping a low profile and trying to rebuild her brand in her district; that may have something to do with the group’s silence, caucus members said.

“There have been a lot of other things going on,” Georgia Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland said. “Let’s face it: She had a tight race, a tough race, so she was probably paying attention to that.”

Bachmann declined to be interviewed on the subject in the Capitol.

But spokesman Dan Kotman said the group plans a 113th Congress kickoff meeting next month around tax day, a symbolic date for the tea party, which espouses lower taxes. He said the group has been meeting with activists “behind the scenes” and will ramp up its activity this Congress.

“The main purpose of the Tea Party Caucus is to listen to Tea Party leaders and activists, not be a mouthpiece for the Tea Party,” Kotman said in an email. “We have been listening to and working closely with groups behind the scenes to promote limited government and constitutional values and we will continue to do that going forward.”

The group has re-registered as a caucus in the 113th Congress and has been accepted, according to a letter shared by Kotman. The group’s new membership roster, however, will not be available until the April meeting.

Barton excused the group’s absence by tying it to redistricting. After the decennial redrawing of districts, he said, members require time to get acquainted with their new territories.

“We will be active. We’ll do some things. Just the Congress hasn’t been in session a lot and we’ve got a new Congress, a lot of members have new districts. I think we’ve tended just to focus on getting our feet on the ground in our new districts,” he said.

Rep. John Fleming, another member of the group, said that the group’s activity rises and falls with that of the movement itself and that absent a front-and-center cause such as the health care overhaul to turn their attention to, both groups lose momentum.

“The main thing that energized the Tea Party Caucus was the interaction with the tea party groups. Most of that had to do with Obamacare,” the Louisiana Republican said. “I think that we’re all sort of looking for the next opportunity to re-engage on Obamacare, and we feel convinced there’s going to be real good opportunities as this thing is implemented.”

The last meeting announced on the group’s website was July 25, when members spoke about the health care overhaul. Still, the group hosted discussions on a range of topics throughout 2011 and 2012, hosting speakers such as former presidential candidate Herman Cain and television commentator Dick Morris to speak about economic issues.

The inactivity has not stopped members from using the caucus as proof positive of their conservatism. Bachmann still lists forming the caucus as one of her accomplishments on her website. Georgia Republican Rep. Paul Broun, who is running for the Senate, was identified as a member of the caucus in a Tuesday op-ed in The New York Times, in which he criticized Wisconsin Republican and Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan’s fiscal blueprint.

But there is evidence that members could shy away from the label. In a CNN/ORC Poll published this month, 48 percent of respondents said they have an unfavorable view of the tea party movement.

Those numbers could be daunting for a member such as Bachmann, who struggled to maintain control of her seat in the November elections.

For others, those numbers mean nothing. Barton boasted that he thinks most of his constituents in the Dallas-area 6th District see the movement and the caucus favorably.

“The tea party is here to stay,” he said.

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