Senate leaders clashed over the Tea Party Thursday morning in anticipation of a boisterous demonstration that conservative activists have planned outside the Capitol later in the day.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tea Party activists and affiliated members of Congress threaten to disrupt negotiations over spending levels for the rest of 2011.
“I’m sure it’s not easy trying to negotiate with the Tea Party screaming in their ears,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “We have a lot more work to do.
Senate Democrats, House Republicans and the White House appear to be making progress on a deal to cut spending for the current fiscal year. The two sides are negotiating toward a target of cutting this year's spending by $33 billion, much less than what Tea Party groups have demanded.
Reid’s comments Thursday were the latest in a running effort by Democratic leaders to portray the Tea Party as having an extreme influence on the GOP.
“We can’t have what’s going on here with the Tea Party demonstrating, all these very harsh cuts with unrealistic riders, punishing innocent folks just for political ideology,” he said.
Tea Party members will hold a rally at D.C.'s Taft Memorial Park north of the Capitol beginning at noon Thursday. Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Steve King (Iowa) and House Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) are scheduled to deliver speeches.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) defended the Tea Party from Democratic attacks.
In a floor speech, McConnell said the Tea Party has been vilified for “politely asking lawmakers here in Washington to change the way things are done around here.”
“Despite the Democrat leadership’s talking points, these folks are not radicals — they are our next-door neighbors and our friends,” McConnell said. “By and large, they are housewives, professionals, students, parents and grandparents.”
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) caused a minor uproar earlier this week when he was overheard by reporters before a conference call instructing colleagues to describe House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) as boxed in by Tea Party pressure. He urged them to use the word “extreme” to describe the cuts favored by Tea Party activists.
McConnell fought back against that characterization on Thursday.
“The Democratic leaders in Washington are pretty far outside the mainstream. That’s why we have got one Democratic leader coaching his colleagues to describe any Republican idea as extreme,” said McConnell.
He said Democrats are attempting to “marginalize an entire group of people in this country whose concerns about the growth of the nation's debt, the overreach of the federal government and last year's healthcare bill are about as mainstream as it gets."
Senate Democrats believe House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has pressured Boehner not to accept a compromise on spending cuts with President Obama and Democratic leaders.
"Mitch McConnell has to pay at least some lip service to the Tea Party because he doesn't want Jim DeMint doing to him what Eric Cantor is doing to Boehner. But it's nice to see him finally return to the budget debate after hiding under his bed from the pitchforks for the last few weeks," said a Senate Democratic leadership aide in reference to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a founding member of the Tea Party Caucus.
This story was updated at 11:53 a.m.