WASHINGTON – There are plenty of Republicans in the House hoping to capitalize on the activism and conservative zeal of the “tea party” movement. But only 28 put their names on the list of members of the newly formed Tea Party Caucus.
The caucus met for the first time Wednesday and emerged declaring that its members were there to listen to – not lead or even vouch for – the conservative political movement.
“We are not the mouthpiece of the tea party. We are not taking the tea party and controlling it from Washington, D.C.,” caucus chairwoman and founder Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said at a news conference after the meeting. “We are also not here to vouch for the tea party.”
Bachmann’s careful disclaimer shows just how touchy the subject is. Caucuses are widely used as a way for members to signal their political and personal allegiances. But in the case of the tea party, Republican politicians have generally preferred to support the effort less formally, with encouraging words and occasional appearances at rallies.
The distance has allowed lawmakers to avoid claims that they are trying to co-opt the grassroots movement. It also protects them from having to defend the controversial views that occasionally mingle with the movement’s core message of limited government and lower taxes.
Bachmann did not discuss the formation of the group with House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, a Boehner spokesman said. Bachmann said Wednesday that she did notify House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of her plans.
Though they did not claim to speak for the tea party, caucus members did attempt to defend the movement from recent accusations that it has tolerated racism within its ranks. A small but diverse group of tea party activists spoke at the news conference, including an immigrant from Colombia, another from Brazil and Danielle Hollars, a 32-year-old African-American mother of five from Virginia.
“We are not terrorists, we are not racist,” Hollars said. “We are patriots.”
Rep. Dan Burton said that the “various ethnic groups” represented should dispel any notions of racism.
Bachmann said the caucus would be a “receptacle” for tea party activists’ views and opinions and she hoped to use video conferencing to help the caucus hear from “real people with very real lives.” She would not comment on whether it might introduce legislation on the House floor as a result.