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Tea Time on Capitol Hill

Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul by flickr.com/gageskidmore/Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul started off Thursday’s first meeting of the Senate Tea Party Caucus on Capitol Hill with this question: “Is the Tea Party still a force in America?”

The Republican’s query was met with a roar in the affirmative from the crowd of about 150 Tea Party supporters who braved the remnants of the winter storm that walloped Washington, D.C., Wednesday night to participate in the inaugural gathering.

In addition to Sen. Paul, who won last year’s Republican primary in Kentucky on a wave of Tea Party support that carried him all the way through the general election, two other favorites of the movement also attended the event: Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. The three lawmakers represent the entirety of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, although Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, told reporters after delivering brief remarks at the meeting that he planned to join the group, but had not done so yet.

The themes of Thursday’s event mirrored those of last fall’s midterm campaign, but the focus now was on legislating.

Sen. Paul touted his proposal to cut the budget by $500 billion dollars this year, which would among other things eliminate the Departments of Energy and Housing and Urban Development, do away with the Department of Education except for the Pell grant program, and cut funding in half for the Department of Commerce.

Smaller items that would be abolished would include the Affordable Housing Program, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Even with those reductions, Paul argued more cuts would be needed. “Most of official Washington thinks that’s way too dramatic and we can never do it. But guess what? It’s not enough. $500 billion if we cut it tomorrow, would be a third of next year’s debt. It barely gets us going in the right direction,” Sen. Paul said.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office released a revised estimate Wednesday projecting “the federal budget will show a deficit of close to $1.5 trillion” this year.

That figure concerned many in the audience, including Alexandria, Va.-resident Lisa Miller. She called on Sen. DeMint before the start of the event to put forward a plan with enough cuts to close the $1.5 trillion deficit this year. Sen. DeMint said he didn’t disagree with Miller’s suggestion, but indicated such an ambitious plan was not likely to find many takers on Capitol Hill.

In his formal remarks, Sen. DeMint thanked the crowd for “sending me some help,” but he also encouraged them to keep at it. “What you did is send us enough people in the House and the Senate that we can stop the incredibly bad stuff we’ve seen over the last two years. We don’t yet have the numbers to do all of the good things that we need to do,” DeMint said.

Sen. DeMint endorsed a handful of Tea Party-backed conservatives in 2010 Republican primaries over the preferred candidates of the party establishment, including Sen. Paul (over Kentucky secretary of state Trey Grayson) and Sen. Lee (over then incumbent Sen. Robert Bennett).

Other Republican senators elected with Tea Party support include Florida’s Marco Rubio and Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, but neither attended Thursday’s event.

Sen. Paul said the Tea Party had already forced some change for the better, citing the president’s pledge in the State of the Union to veto any bills sent to him that contain earmarks, or money inserted by lawmakers into legislation for home-state projects. “I went to my first State of the Union the other day and guess who now is against earmarks? The President of the United States has been co-opted by the Tea Party,” Sen. Paul proclaimed.

Sen. Lee, who is one of 12 freshmen Republican senators and an advocate for passage of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, picked up another part of the president’s speech Tuesday night, where he said taxpayers deserve a government that lives within its means, just as the taxpayers do. “But, there’s a difference,” Lee said, adding, “We mean it, he doesn’t.”

House Republicans formed a Tea Party Caucus of their own last July.

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