‘Tea party’ activists happier with the GOP

Leaders of the movement that bloomed in opposition to the healthcare bill say activists are only further galvanized in defeat and now 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 Sunday 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 GOP 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 on the right to Democratic policies.

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 could do without the fringe elements that threaten to drive away independent voters. For their part, tea partyers have also walked a fine line, trying to keep the Republican Party at arm’s length for fear of the movement’s being “hijacked.”

But after Sunday’s vote, tea party leaders did not hold back praise for fellow opponents to the healthcare legislation.

“We were pretty proud of ‘em. I watched and said, ‘By Jove, I think they’ve got it,’ ” said former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey of the House Republicans. Armey, who had previously described the GOP as “the ones who broke our hearts,” said 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 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 healthcare reform. The approach, including legal challenges and calls for repeal, resembled a strategy described by Republicans in Congress.

Far from being deflated, tea party activists said the weekend’s events clarified the battle lines ahead of the November election.

“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 the Tea Party Express, the group organizing a rally targeting Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in his hometown of Searchlight, Nev., this Saturday.

The Republicans’ unanimous opposition to the healthcare overhaul boosted the party’s conservative credentials, but the pressure would still be on to win tea party support, Kremer said. “There are going to be other things that come up. I would not say, ‘Oh because they voted this way one time that they get it,’ ” she said.

Armey and other leaders said they couldn’t verify the racial slur occurred because there did not appear to be video of the incident.

“If it happened, we don’t know who did it and what affiliations they have,” he said.

The incident became a rallying point against Democrats and the media, which tea party activists say has portrayed the movement as dominated by its fringe.