'Tea party' activists plan to fight on

March 24, 2010|By Kathleen Hennessey | Tribune Newspapers

WASHINGTON — - Leaders of the movement that bloomed in opposition to the health care reform bill say activists are only further galvanized in defeat and closer to the Republican Party they once claimed to scorn.

But "tea party" activists have not made it easy for mainstream Republicans to return the embrace.

The bill's final push to passage over the weekend brought reports that protesters on Capitol Hill had directed a racial epithet at a black Democrat and twice shouted a derogatory term at a gay lawmaker. Some House Republicans engaged the crowd of protesters with "Kill the bill" signs, but Republican leadership did not take the stage at the protest. Instead, they found themselves having to answer for the racial outbursts while trying not to alienate the most visible and vocal source of opposition to Democratic policies on the right.

The comments were "reprehensible and should not have happened," House Republican Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio said Sunday. "But let's not let a few isolated incidents get in the way of the fact that millions of Americans are scared to death."

It's a familiar balancing act for a party that needs the energy of the tea party movement, but not the fringe elements that threaten to drive away independent voters. Tea partiers have also walked a fine line, trying to keep the Republican Party at arm's length for fear of a "hijacking" of the movement. But after Sunday's vote, tea party leaders did not hold back praise for their allies in opposition.

"We were pretty proud of 'em. I watched and said, 'By Jove, I think they've got it,' " said former House Majority Leader Dick Armey of House Republicans; he had previously described the GOP as "the ones who broke our hearts." "The Republicans spoke up for liberty unabashedly."

Armey's advocacy group FreedomWorks has helped organize several tea party rallies, including the protest Saturday. "It is now clear that Democrat[ic] control of both the legislative and executive branches is the problem," FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe wrote in an e-mail outlining a several-pronged strategy for continued opposition to health care reform. The strategy, including legal challenges and calls for repeal, resembled one described by Republican leaders in Congress.

Far from deflated by the weekend's events, "tea party" leaders and activists said they clarified the battle lines ahead of November elections.

"I'm more mad today than I was when this whole mess started," B.P. Pope, a tea party activist from Atlanta, said Monday as she wrote a check for a Republican candidate for Congress.

"People understand this is now about elections. You can agitate and suggest that you are nonpartisan, but the truth of that matter is you have to take a position," said Mark Skoda, founder of the Memphis Tea Party and member of the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition. "I don't want people to say, 'I'm nonpartisan.' I want them to be partisan as hell."

Not all tea party leaders took that view.

"We're still educating people on how to vote on principles and values and not according to the letter next to somebody's name," said Amy Kremer of Tea Party Express, the group organizing a massive rally targeting Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in his hometown of Searchlight, Nev., on Saturday.

Republicans' unanimous opposition to health care reform boosted their conservative credentials, but the pressure would still be on, she said.

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