Tea and Promises
Jim DeMint's Tea Party Caucus lets activists drive the GOP further to the right.
What made this caucus different from all other caucuses?
"No cigars and no closed doors," said Paul. "Open venues. I'm not going to be the leader of the caucus. We're going to rotate around. It's going to be a continued conversation between the grass roots and the people who come from the grass roots."
The first meeting of the caucus was mostly a one-way conversation. Senators and representatives from Tea Party and conservative groups talked; they took only a few questions. When DeMint had to exit, he was halted by Richmond activist John Pettengill, who reminded him that no one had led the group in the Pledge of Allegiance. DeMint returned to the podium and led the pledge.
Just about everything else went the audience's way, too. They'd all heard that the Senate had to approve a rise in the debt ceiling to forestall the collapse of America. Not so. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., clued the crowd into a still-obscure bill he'd introduce, the Full Faith and Credit Act.
"It's a simple piece of legislation," said Toomey. "Thirteen lines."
"Whoa!" said one voice in the crowd.
"It says that in the event we don't raise the debt ceiling, it instructs the Treasury to make debt service the top priority," said Toomey. "We should take off the table a false argument that failure to raise the debt ceiling immediately results in default."
Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist gave a short history lesson, informing them that the late Sen. Harry Byrd had run an "anti-appropriations committee" charged with killing wasteful spending. It was time to bring it back. Paul, for one, was in favor. "When I came up here and they asked me what committee I wanted to be on," he said, "I sent Senator Reid and Senator McConnell a letter. I said I wanted to be on the Byrd committee, and I wanted to be the chairman."
All of these things could happen if the grass roots kept showing up and making noise about them. Policy was being moved right, said DeMint, "because of folks like you standing up and speaking out, because of the conservative media, radio talk shows, blogs, Fox News, who can get out right information."
Nobody in the room disputed this. They'd seen too many of their ideas get adopted, like the pipe-dream earmark ban that became reality, or the brutal death of the 2010 omnibus spending bill.
I caught up with Lisa Miller on her way back to work. She thought the meeting had gone brilliantly. "This is an opportunity to get some sound bites and to get some earned media for the issues that the Tea Party is interested in," she said. "Sometimes it's hard to get earned media. But you guys are here right now!"
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Jim DeMint by Win McNamee/Getty Images.