Activists Invited To First Senate Tea Party Caucus

Not to be outdone by the House of Representatives, three senators got together for the first meeting of the Senate Tea Party Caucus on Thursday. More than 120 activists from groups such as FreedomWorks, Tea Party Express and Americans for Tax Reform were invited to attend.

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In the United States Senate, four Republicans have announced the formation of a Tea Party Caucus. As NPR's Audie Cornish reports, they're following the lead of the House, where conservatives have already put together a caucus with more than 50 members.

AUDIE CORNISH: The first meeting of the Senate Tea Party caucus wasn't a tony backroom gathering of legislators in leather couches. Part post-election victory lap, part town hall meeting, the event included more than 120 invited activists from groups such as FreedomWorks, Tea Party Express, and Americans for Tax Reform. Here's Merrill Smith of the Republican Liberty Caucus.

Mr. MERRILL SMITH (Republican Liberty Caucus): We have to watch the Republicans. They're, you know, they're almost worse because they get your hopes up and then they dont deliver. I think they've gotten the message this time.

CORNISH: And the Senate Tea Party caucus was as notable for who wasn't there as for who was. Conservative favorites like Florida's Marco Rubio and New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte have so far declined to join.

Four out of the 47 Senate Republicans formed the inaugural group: Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Mike Lee of Utah, Jerry Moran of Kansas and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Senator Paul assured the crowd they hadn't been co-opted by the establishment, rather, it was the other way around.

Senator RAND PAUL (Republican, Kentucky): I went to my first State of the Union the other day and guess who now is against earmarks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. PAUL: The president of the United States has been co-opted by the Tea Party.

CORNISH: And Senator DeMint said the goal was to create an open forum.

Senator JIM DEMINT (Republican, South Carolina): So that we can give you a report on what we're trying to do and you can get up and tell us we're not doing enough.

CORNISH: First test of that pledge came almost immediately, when local Tea Party WDC member Lisa Miller prodded the senator on budget cutting.

Ms. LISA MILLER (Tea Party WDC): Would you be willing to present a bill that has at 1.4 trillion in cuts per annum? Because if you could just put forth something that allows us to see that we can reach a balanced budget this year or the next year, the Tea Party would be much more energized.

CORNISH: Thats triple the most conservative proposal floating around the Senate today.

Sen. DEMINT: We just are thinking that through. If I put down the things that have to be cut this year to get to cut 1.5 trillion, it would probably kill the idea because everybody starts realizing they have a...

Ms. MILLER: Try. Try. Try. We will back you up.

Sen. DEMINT: But no. But if you have...

CORNISH: The political wish list was long, but lawmakers pledged there would be more forums like this one to get things going.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.

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