Speaking at the inaugural meeting of the Senate Tea Party Caucus this morning, Pat Toomey revealed one of his comittee assignments, saying he had to run to a Budget Committee meeting and adding, "It's not pretty." For the fiscally focused freshman, it's a perfect fit, and one that he had hoped for since he was elected in November. The news still isn't official -- and won't be until this afternoon, when all committee assignments are announced -- but Budget is a big deal for Toomey as he will be at the center of the debates on raising the debt ceiling, the issue which he is addressing with his first piece of legislation as a senator. (In addition, his chief of staff, Chris Gahan, worked for fomer Budget chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H.)
That bill -- a mere 13 lines, he quipped to the tea party loathers of the 2,000-page health care bill -- was the subject of his brief remarks this morning to the Tea Party Caucus, where a few dozen activists gathered in a hearing room for speeches from senators and national tea party leaders. The caucus was organized by freshman Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and he was joined as a headliner by Mike Lee, R-Utah, and the godfather of the tea party candidates, Jim DeMint, R-S.C. Toomey arrived late and left immediately after speaking, but he had high praise for DeMint and the tea party movement -- to which he owes considerable help in getting him elected. "The opportunity, in my view, is to use this moment to insist we're going to change the course of our country," he said of the upcoming debt ceiling vote.
Toomey is still straddling the line on being a full-fledged tea partier, and he declined to answer the questions of the horde of reporters who followed him out the door about whether he was officially joining the caucus and if not, why not. He ducked out a side door, saying he was late for his Budget meeting. This was a contrast to Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, who arrived late to deliver a speech but on his way out told reporters that he was definitely joining up with the caucus.
For his part, DeMint said he didn't care whether the caucus consists of three senators or 100 -- it was about the activists who showed up and their keeping the senators engaged with the movement's priorities. A woman in the front row grilled DeMint about budget cuts before the start of the meeting for several minutes, demanding that the $1.5 trillion deficit be closed within the next couple years. DeMint said he was right with her, but didn't think such cuts would be politically feasible right now, saying work should continue on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
Other speakers included such Washington veterans as Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks -- who were of course insistent that the movement is entirely organic and rooted outside of D.C. -- who gave a lot of talk about freedom and liberty, and even more about the 2012 elections, with the goal of Republicans taking back the Senate and the White House. Though there were some call-and-response portions of speeches and loud ovations, it wasn't a rally, nor was it billed as one. There were only a couple folks dressed in garish American flag gear or bearing "Don't Tread on Me" flags, and the message was a combination of "look how far we've come" and "we have much more to do."
DeMint, the senator who helped spark challenges to some of his colleagues from the right, was just thrilled with the GOP freshman class he helped shape. "Thank you for sending me some help," he said.