By Russell Berman - 08/08/11 12:57 AM EDT
While the Tea Party movement may have had outsized influence over the raucous debt-ceiling debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus was nowhere to be found.
Bachmann (Minn.), now a Republican presidential candidate, founded the caucus in July 2010, seeking to capitalize on the grassroots energy that would help catapult the GOP to the House majority in November.
While Bachmann staunchly opposed any increase in the federal debt limit, the caucus never took a formal position, a spokeswoman said, and a majority of its 60 House members ultimately supported the agreement struck by Obama and Republican congressional leaders.
“I never even heard people mention the caucus during the debate,” said Mark Meckler, national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, a group that held rallies outside the Capitol in which Bachmann participated.
Instead, the Republican Study Committee (RSC) filled its traditional role as the preeminent conservative voice within the House GOP. Comprising more than two-thirds of the Republican conference, the study committee has nearly three times as many members as the Tea Party Caucus. Party leaders ultimately adopted the panel’s “cut, cap and balance” proposal as the conference’s official position on the debt ceiling. Bachmann opposed the legislation when it reached the House floor.
“The caucuses generally don’t have as much influence as the RSC,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks. He noted that unlike Bachmann’s group and most of the other ad hoc caucuses in Congress, the Republican Study Committee operates with a budget and paid staff. “By definition, they have a strategic advantage.”
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Bachmann formally launched her presidential bid in mid-June, and she has frequently been away from Capitol Hill since then. In the six weeks after announcing her run, she missed 37 percent of House votes, The Hill reported.
The congresswoman’s Republican rivals have criticized her thin legislative record during her five years in office. While Bachmann notes that she hosted the first Tea Party Caucus meeting on her campaign website, she has downplayed expectations that it would take a leadership role in the movement.
"We’re the ear-piece of the Tea Party. We’re not the mouthpiece,” Bachmann told The Hill after the caucus’s Feb. 28 meeting. “So we’re not here to set the agenda or tell the Tea Party what to do. What we’re trying to do is hear their responses."
Bachmann was unavailable for an interview for this article, and a spokeswoman for the lawmaker, Becky Rogness, did not dispute the caucus’s low level of activity in recent months.
“Congresswoman Bachmann has always stressed that the [Tea Party Caucus] is to provide another way for Congress to hear from the American people,” Rogness said. “Make no mistake, the American people made their voices heard in Washington during the debt-ceiling debate, and they are not happy with the outcome.”
The caucus has held a total of four meetings in 2011, Rogness said. In addition to the policy meetings in February and June, Bachmann hosted two constitutional seminars early in the year, including one with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. More meetings are expected after Congress returns from recess in September, Rogness said.
Tea Party leaders said expectations for the congressional caucus were low from the start, in large part because activists were skeptical of any attempt to centralize a grassroots movement that sprung out of anger at Washington itself. “I didn’t have any expectations that they were going to carry the ball. Nor have they,” said Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express.
The leaders said it was far more important that the Tea Party movement as a whole influenced the debate, which they said was evident by the spending cuts that accompanied the increase in the debt ceiling.
Kibbe said concern about the caucus stemmed from the fact that all attempts to “impose a hierarchy” on the Tea Party have failed. “There were some people that were worried that would be the outcome,” he said. “I don’t think it has done any harm.”
While Bachmann’s group has not been a large factor in the debt debate, she remains in high standing with the Tea Party movement, the activists said. Russo called her the movement’s “energizer bunny.”
Kibbe’s group broke with Bachmann over the “cut, cap and balance” plan, which she opposed. “She represented a very small minority in the Tea Party, which was to refuse to raise the debt ceiling” under any circumstances, he said. “I don’t think that was a plausible position to take.”
Still, Kibbe said he didn’t fault her leadership of the Tea Party caucus.
“Do I feel like she’s exploited the brand? No,” he said. “She’s got real street cred.”