WASHINGTON - Congressional leaders are inching closer to a deal on how much to cut federal spending for the next six months - and pretty much ignoring the spending-cut absolutists of the tea party, the grass-roots movement that's losing influence despite having helped elect dozens of Republicans last November.
Tea party activists had hoped to send a loud message Thursday to Republican lawmakers, telling them at a long-scheduled Capitol Hill rally either to stick to tough budget-slashing principles or face the movement’s wrath.
Instead, only a few hundred people showed up.
Meanwhile, inside the Capitol, experienced lawmakers of both parties reported progress toward a pragmatic budget compromise.
The weak rally showing could boomerang on tea party activists by emboldening the GOP leaders who are negotiating the federal budget with Democrats and the White House.
How all this plays out in the politics of the 2012 elections is anybody’s guess, but it wouldn’t be the first time a populist movement sputtered after making a splash in an election. Remember the GOP’s “Contract With America” success in 1994, when Republicans won control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years? The GOP lost the next two elections.
Evidence is piling up that the tea party movement has passed its peak. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll March 11-13 found that only 32 percent of Americans viewed the tea party favorably, down 5 points from December. Those who viewed it unfavorably totaled 47 percent, up 4 from December. The survey’s error margin was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The tea party appears to be suffering three ailments common to grass-roots efforts that suddenly vault onto the political scene: Mainstream politicians tend to adopt enough of the movement’s ideas to dilute their power, movement backers learn that the legislative system isn’t easily navigated and activists simply get worn out and lose energy.
“The problem in American politics is for a reform movement to maintain viability for very long,” said G. Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.
“Some people are saying, ‘Wow, I need a breather,’ ” said Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation. “People are tired and we’re in a lull period with no elections.”