Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., arrived early at the first-ever public meeting of the Senate Tea Party Caucus on Thursday. Dozens of activists had trekked into the grand meeting room of the Hart Senate Office Building just to meet the senators, or to get their signatures on their pocket Constitutions. DeMint moved quickly through the crowd and walked right into Lisa Miller.
"We're really hoping that you'll present enough to balance the budget per annum within this year," said Miller, an activist from Alexandria, Va. "It takes $1.5 trillion, right now, to really start paying down the debt. But given that our spending right now endangers the general welfare, even though it's never happened in the history of our government, we should have the tools under our current Constitution, to preserve the union."
DeMint had never promised to balance the budget immediately. There were reporters watching him, ready to hear a brand-new policy statement. He avoided making one and talked up a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
"We want an amendment to balance the budget," he said, quietly, "because we're in agreement that we're going to bankrupt the country. … I don't know if it's next month or next year, but we're not that far."
Miller went right back at him. "We have a division here in the Tea Party. I don't support any of these constitutional amendments. I believe we have the tools right here, today, in order to preserve our financial strength, as well as our national security."
DeMint kept walking her back. "The reason a lot of us are supporting a constitutional amendment," he said, "is that they've done things before and made laws like pay-go—you can't pass anything without paying for it. But every time it came up they'd waive it, with 51 votes. It was like a joke. The Social Security lockbox was supposed to keep us from spending Social Security funds. We kept spending them. There's no institutional discipline."
DeMint kept trying to convince her that he—Jim DeMint!—was not a squish. "If we don't have a requirement to balance the budget, then politics will take it apart. Right now I've introduced $2.5 trillion over 10 years, and listen, the Democrats are just pounding us for wanting to cut essential services. Plus, the thing is, there's no requirement that we have to do anything."
"Sir," said Miller, "have you ever said no to a teenager?"
DeMint moved quickly to assure her. "I can say no!"
This conversation went on for 10 minutes; the space around DeMint filled with reporters wagging digital recorders. It left an impression. When DeMint took the podium to introduce the caucus and promise that it wasn't trying to co-opt the movement, he said co-opting would be impossible anyway.
"You can keep on reminding us that what is rational and reasonable here is not rational and reasonable on the outside," said DeMint. "What seems doable here is not enough." He pointed to Rand Paul of Kentucky, a founder of the Senate Tea Party Caucus along with DeMint and Mike Lee of Utah. Paul had just proposed a package of deep cuts. "When he suggested cutting $500 billion, they said 'Aw, he's a far right-winger.' But if I walk through this crowd, I'm hearing that cutting $500 billion isn't enough. I'm not right enough!"
That right there is the relationship between the Tea Party and the GOP. There were many questions about whether DeMint's rebels were getting on with the leadership.
"How would you describe the Tea Party caucus's relationship with Republican leaders?" one reporter asked Paul.
Paul just shrugged. "Good," he said.
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!"