Rep. Michele Bachmann, center, speaks at a press conference for the Tea Party Caucus July 21 in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo)
LAS VEGAS—One of the kick-off sessions Thursday morning at Netroots Nation focused on —what else? — the tea party.
“The thing that has me most concerned is the overarching theme on our side that we should dismiss [the tea party] because they’re nuts. And we do that at our own peril,” said Adele Stan, Washington bureau chief for the liberal site AlterNet. She spoke at a session titled “Right-wing Populism and the Tea Parties.”
The people here should know a bit about being viewed as a fringe movement. Now in its fifth year, Netroots Nation, has grown into an established part of the Democratic Party’s grassroots. It’s taken seriously enough that both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will speak here Saturday, among others.
But five years ago, the gathering was disparagingly referred to as “the nutroots” and derided by many in the media and political observers as a fringe movement of bloggers and activists who didn’t know how to win elections. Sound familiar?
The convention founder, blogger Markos Moulitsas, told Washington Wire Thursday that the movement has evolved in to a more sophisticated operation. “I think we’re a key component in mobilizing people online, in funding a lot of candidates, and fueling a lot of grassroots energy that has allowed a lot of remarkable candidates to win a bunch of seats.”
But as the 2,100 activists gather here for a four-day confab, a larger question seems to be hanging over this grassroots movement: Have they lost their edge?
“Change is a spent topic,” said Stan, referencing the overarching theme of President Barack Obama’s winning 2008 campaign that electrified the progressive movement.
With tea party enthusiasm bubbling across the country, progressives here have acknowledged they’re not doing enough to counteract the tea party message with one of their own.
“After the 2008 election we were all celebrating, but we also became complacent,” said liberal blogger David Neiwert. “The right never gives up.”
“The answer to the tea party is to activate the populist wing of the progressive movement,” he said. “We need to seize on [the public’s frustration] ourselves and channel it to our movement.”
Progressives at least seem to be taking the tea party movement seriously, even if they don’t know exactly how to counteract it.
“The tea party movement is here to stay,” said John Amato, founder of the liberal blog crooksandliars.com and author of “Over the Cliff,” a book about the conservative movement. “It’s going to get worse and not any better and we need to rise to the challenge.”
To require all persons in the United States between the ages of 18 and 42 to perform national service, either as a member of the uniformed services or in civilian service in furtherance of the national defense and homeland security, to authorize the induction of persons in the uniformed services during wartime to meet end-strength requirements of the uniformed services, and for other purposes.
|Introduced||Jul 15, 2010|
|Referred to Committee||View Committee Assignments|
|Reported by Committee||...|
|Signed by President||...|
Jul 15, 2010: Referred to the House Committee on Armed Services.
A move by members of Congress to plant the Tea Party flag on Capitol Hill is getting a cautious reception from Tea Party members who are warning the lawmakers not to attempt a takeover of the grassroots movement.
The formation of an official Tea Party Caucus comes at a critical time in the movement's quest for identity and influence, with midterm elections on the horizon. The existence of a caucus in Washington potentially puts pressure on Tea Partiers to better define themselves before somebody else does it for them.
The caucus debuted Wednesday and already counts nearly 30 House Republicans as members. They did not claim to speak for the Tea Party movement, and Tea Partiers say that's the way it ought to stay.
"They're not the leaders of the movement. ... They don't give orders of any kind," said Shelby Blakely, a leadership council member for Tea Party Patriots and the director of the network's online publication. She said Tea Party Patriots is fine with the caucus, provided its only job is to listen. She described it as just another Tea Party, nothing more.
"We went from 2,350 groups to 2,351 groups nationwide," Blakely told FoxNews.com.
"If their voting records are not taken into account, then it's just a show," she said.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who championed the caucus by asking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week to allow it, said she's not trying to hijack the movement.
"We decided to form a Tea Party caucus for one very important purpose -- to listen to the concerns of the Tea Party," Bachmann said Wednesday. "We are not the mouthpiece of the Tea Party. We are not taking the Tea Party and controlling it from Washington, D.C. I am not the head of the Tea Party, nor are any of these members of Congress the head of the Tea Party movement. The people are the head of the Tea Party movement in all of their form."
As of Wednesday morning, 29 House members, all Republicans, had joined the caucus, including Mike Pence of Indiana, Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, Paul Broun of Georgia, Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, John Carter of Texas and Cliff Stearns of Florida.
The lawmakers said they are not part of the Tea Party movement, but they do support its broad principles: lower taxes, reduced spending and smaller government.
Other groups are not yet sure what to make of the caucus.
"Who's to say what it will or won't be. Many are looking at it hopefully, but also warily," said Christina Botteri, with the National Tea Party Federation. She said she hopes the caucus will "stay true to the principles of the Tea Party."
The caucus would appear to offer an upside and a downside -- it could empower the movement with a direct line to legislators, but it could also take the reins of the movement by default.
The Tea Party as a whole has over the past year grown to include millions of Americans, but has coalesced under several sprawling umbrella groups -- not all of which play nice with each other or among themselves.
The latest outbreak came over the weekend, when the federation ousted from its ranks the Tea Party Express for not cutting ties with a prominent activist who wrote a racially charged blog about the NAACP. In response, activist Mark Williams and the Tea Party Express ridiculed the federation -- an umbrella group started just a few months ago -- saying it has no right to decide who's in and who's out of the Tea Party.
This kind of mindset makes the Tea Party Caucus a bit of an unknown quantity.
Blakely said she's not concerned about anybody trying to define the movement, expressing confidence about her group's ability to bring in millions of supporters with a clearly defined set of principles without dictating to the local chapters.
"It's nothing new. People have been attempting to define the Tea Parties as something that suits their group since the Tea Party started," she said.
But a key focus of the national Tea Party convention, held February in Nashville, was to help the thousands of local groups better organize, even centralize. The convention, brought together by the Tea Party Nation, sought to establish a semi-official Tea Party platform and urge local groups to get directly involved in elections by endorsing candidates.
The Tea Party Nation had a mostly positive reaction to the formation of the caucus on Capitol Hill. The group's official statement said it was "thrilled" that Bachmann formed the group.
"This is the sign of a true and profound change that is coming to this country," the group said.
Founder Judson Phillips told Fox News that he's not concerned at the moment about the caucus growing out of control.
"Ronald Reagan once said the closest thing to eternal life on this planet is a government program," he said. "I hope those who have Tea Party sympathies keep this from becoming another government bureaucracy."
Lacking the requisite 60 votes, Senate Democrats shelved plans to take up an aggressive energy and global warming bill before the August recess and will instead settle on a much smaller bill that deals with the Gulf oil spill and some smaller "green" initiatives.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., broke the news to the Democratic caucus on Thursday that the bill he plans to write will not include a cap on carbon emissions, nor will it set a renewable energy standard.
Reid emerged from the meeting flanked by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and President Obama's climate change czar, Carol Browner, to tell reporters that the blame lay squarely on the shoulders of Republicans, who refuse to supply a crucial 60th vote. Democrats control just 59 votes.
"Many of us want to do a broad, comprehensive bill that creates jobs and breaks our addiction to foreign oil," Reid said. "Unfortunately at the time we don't have a single Republican to work with in achieving this goal."
The GOP is wholly opposed to a bill that would cap carbon on the utility sector, a move they fear might raise energy prices and hurt business.
But Democrats had problems getting their own caucus to buy into an ambitious climate change bill, with many moderate and coal state Democrats refusing to back a carbon cap, particularly in the months leading up to an election that threatens to unseat several of them.
"Our leader and the White House made the determination that we don't have the votes and don't have the time right now to do something more comprehensive and this is probably the best we can do now," said Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa.
The announcement by Reid, however, all but assures "cap and trade" is dead for the year, if not the indefinite future.
While some Democrats talked of taking up a more aggressive bill after the August recess, there is virtually no chance of finding 60 votes for such legislation with the November election lurking around the corner, and Reid made no such promises.
Instead, Reid and Kerry on Thursday appeared to deliver a eulogy for climate change legislation, at least for this year.
"The work will continue every single day," said Kerry, who had written a bill capping carbon and spoke by phone about the decision with Obama earlier in the day.
Reid said the bill he plans to introduce would deal the current oil spill disaster, likely by raising the liability cap on damages oil companies would have to pay and by increasing federal oversight of the oil drilling industry and disaster cleanup efforts.
The bill would also include a measure to reduce energy consumption by promoting the "cash for caulkers" program. And it would provide incentives for the production of more vehicles powered by natural gas and would require oil and gas companies drilling offshore to put more money into the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.