I'm at the National Press Club for the incredibly full Tea Party Town Hall, an inaugural effort by the Tea Party Express to bring Republican members of Congress in front of HD cameras, and make them answer questions about the Tea Party's priorities.
The event nearly included a Democratic senator. According to TPE's Amy Kremer and Luke Russell, the office of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand had contacted them about letting her show up. They warned her that it would be crowded; no one said no to anyone else. (UPDATE: Gillibrand's office denies all of this. A misunderstanding?)
The festivities kicked off early. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who in Gillibrand's absence is the the only senator not from the House or Senate Tea Party Caucus, took some friendly questions as cameras rolled.
What's he think of the Tea Party? "I think it's time for America to take back America, and the Tea Party's part of that," said Hatch, politely. "I have a lot of respect for the Tea Party Express, which is the largest, I understand, of the Tea Party groups."
7:03: Amy Kremer kicked off the proceedings by asking the audience to ask about "core Tea Party issues" of economics -- "not about social issues."
What can Washington do to cut spending? "The Balanced Budget Amendment would force Congress to get real, just get real about spending."
Will the Bush tax cuts be extended? "We need to make them permanent, and we need to get rid of other taxes as well. We need to get rid of the estate tax. I've always been an enemy of estate taxes."
7:14: The full lineup for the town hall -- Orrin Hatch, his Utah colleague Mike Lee, Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, and Rep. Allen West, R-Fla. There is some confusion about audio equipment, dealt with quickly, setting up Paul to make a joke: "This is a real grassroots event!"
7:18: West is the only member thus far whom I haven't heard give a short intro speech. The movement, he says, has clued in Americans to their intellectual history. "When you talk about Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montesquieu, people know who you're talking about."
7:24: Hatch takes the mic and uncorks a perfectly calibrated speech to Tea Partiers. "We've run this country into the ground," he begins. He regrets that Republicans have not previously slashed government spending. "We've never had a fiscally conservative majority," says Hatch. "We've always had three or four Republican senators, usually from blue states."
7:28: Steve King arrives to thunderous applause. He's the first speaker to make a legislative argument. Don't focus on the debt ceiling: "The Continuing Resolution is the pivotal vote we'll be looking at."
His argument is that the House can strip funding for ObamaCare, the way that Democrats in the 1970s stripped funding for the War in Vietnam. "There's precedent for that," he says.
"If we stand firm there's not a dime that can be spent that the House doesn't approve. We will see an amendment, and it will be successful, to shut off any funding that can be used this fiscal year to fund Obamacare."
7:33: A question to Mike Lee: How do you cut spending without a "political reaction" from the people affected by cuts? You don't.
"This is the problem of our time," says Lee. "Cuts are going to be painful. That's why they call them cuts. They result in pain and hemmoraghing and other things... a pain-free exit isn't really on the table, so we need to find the one that does the least damage."
This is why the Balanced Budget Amendment needs to pass. "Congress needs to be put in a straightjacket," says Lee. "I apologize to the people who've been here for a while, but Congress has not managed our money well." Hatch smiles and applauds.
7:38: Michele Bachmann arrives! "There's only one reason why I'm here," she says, "and it's everybody in this room and everybody watching online!"
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