WASHINGTON — The tea party movement has been nearly invisible in the intensive lobbying campaign over the “fiscal cliff,” even as Congress and the White House debate the issues of government spending and national debt that are at the core of the movement’s identity.
In many ways, the tea party was made for this moment. The grass-roots opposition to President Barack Obama’s agenda that arose in 2009 has been so focused on fiscal concerns that leaders once prevented speakers at tea party rallies from even discussing abortion and other social issues.
And in fact, it is the tea party that helped bring the country to this moment. The automatic spending cuts at the heart of the year-end fiscal cliff grew out of the tea party’s fierce campaign last year to slash federal budgets and cap government borrowing.
Yet as groups across the political spectrum seek to influence any deal to avert the cuts and tax increases set to kick in Jan. 1, the tea party has been unusually — and deliberately — quiet. Members still call and e-mail Congress but have held no rallies and done little lobbying.
When tea party leader Jenny Beth Martin recently journeyed to the Capitol from her Atlanta area home, for example, she did not bring with her the busloads of tea party members who once descended on Washington to rally for fiscal restraint.
As she toured the offices of several Republican House members, Martin barely brought up the fiscal cliff negotiations that could chart the nation’s budgetary future, according to Martin and congressional aides.
Her focus instead? Fighting over spending at the state level.
“We’re sitting back” on the fiscal cliff, said Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, the nation’s largest tea party group. Republicans in Congress, she said, “have proven they’re not going to listen to us,” adding that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is a “caveman” for his willingness to consider tax increases.
Tea party activists say they feel despised by Democrats and ignored by Republicans, and they still resent the blame they received for last year’s debt ceiling crisis, in which tea-party backed lawmakers demanded deep spending cuts in return for increasing the federal borrowing limit and helped push the nation to the brink of default.
“We’re thinking, ‘instead of wasting our time with these people, maybe we should go home and actually enjoy our families for the holidays,” said Marianne Gasiecki, an Ohio tea party activist. “We’re saying, ‘You can’t blame us for this one.’ But they’ll blame us anyway. Someone has to be the scapegoat.”
Unless members of Congress “are blind, deaf and dumb,” Gasiecki added, “there’s no way they could not have heard what’s been screamed at them for the past four years.”
Indeed, the ideas advocated by the tea party — which helped propel concerns about federal spending and borrowing to the forefront of the national debate and fuel 2010′s Republican sweep of the House — still resonate in the GOP. An example, said conservative strategist Keith Appell, was the failure last week of Boehner’s “Plan B” legislation to avoid the fiscal cliff, which was doomed when conservative Republicans in the House declined to endorse a tax increase even on millionaires.
“The tea party vision for fiscal sanity is still very powerful in Washington,” said Appell, senior vice president at CRC Public Relations in Alexandria, Va.
Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman, said the speaker, “like virtually every House Republican, was elected with Tea Party support in 2010 and 2012 — and he deeply appreciates that support.”
A GOP congressional aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity, said the tea party’s “presence is certainly still felt and certainly considered.”
The aide added: “As an actual entity, they’re not up here at the Capitol like they were.”
Some tea party allies view its lack of D.C. presence as a sign of weakness for a movement that has been searching for a new path, especially since Obama’s reelection.
“The (fiscal cliff) is obviously a massive debate about what our country’s fiscal future is going to look like, and you’re looking around going, ‘Where is the tea party?”’ said Ned Ryun, president of American Majority, a political training institute allied with the movement. “Part of this is simply that some of the movement has disappeared.”
That is a far cry from the tea party’s halcyon days, when members flocked to D.C. rallies against Obama’s health-care overhaul and what they considered excessive spending. During last year’s dispute over the debt ceiling, tea party members called for a government shutdown during a rally at the Capitol. The debate ultimately produced a deal to raise the borrowing limit but also set up automatic cuts, which are part of the fiscal cliff.
But soon after the Nov. 6 election, more than 100 Tea Party Patriots leaders and state coordinators gathered at a Hyatt hotel in Washington and chose a different strategy for the fiscal cliff. “We decided to treat Congress like grown-ups and say, ‘Fix it,”’ said Gasiecki. “It’s like parents who have raised their kids well and step back and say, ‘Prove to us that you’ve been listening.”’
As a result, during her recent visit to the Capitol, Martin talked mostly about state issues during meetings with Republican congressmen including Tom Price, Ga., Steve Scalise, La., and Phil Gingrey, Ga. She said her group is “paying attention to the fiscal cliff but mostly just watching,” and is instead working on fighting Obamacare in the states and on various state and local fiscal issues.
Joe Dugan, a South Carolina tea party activist, is focusing on a tea party convention that will be held in his state in January. He will send Congress a documentary of the event but has no plans to lobby over the fiscal cliff.
“Why in the world would I want to get involved in the games they are playing?” he said. “I have other things to spend my energy on besides lost causes.”
Amy Kremer, who heads Tea Party Express, another national group, said the movement is “in kind of a re-grouping mode to see where we go from here” and that “no one has any money now to go to D.C., a few days from Christmas.”
She added: “We’re still here, we’re not backing down.” She called on Congress to “cut spending” and “create a pro-growth environment.”
FreedomWorks, a D.C. conservative group aligned with the tea party, says it is closely following the fiscal cliff debate and has a full-time staffer meeting with Republican members of Congress to urge steps such as extending current tax rates and reforming entitlement programs.
Dean Clancy, the group’s legislative counsel, declined to name the members but said FreedomWorks is in touch with the staffs of Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. It is also writing frequent blog posts about the negotiations.
Yet when FreedomWorks brought up the fiscal cliff during a “Fly-In” for more than 100 activists at its Washington headquarters this month, Clancy said, “there weren’t a whole lot 0f folks in the room who felt they could do anything about it.”
The activists, he added, have no plans to come back to Washington as the negotiations proceed.