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Tea Party May Be Losing Steam, But Issues Still Boil

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The battle over how to avoid the looming cuts and tax increases known as the fiscal cliff is a frustrating one for the Tea Party. The movement is still a force within the GOP, even as its popularity has fallen over the past two years.

But in the current debate, there have been no big rallies in Washington, and Tea Party members in Congress seem resigned to the fact that any eventual deal will be one they won't like — and one they'll have little influence over.

Ryan Rhodes, who heads the Iowa Tea Party, doesn't see anything to feel good about as he watches Washington from afar.

"Well, frankly, the way that Republicans are getting beat, and beat essentially from a media perspective ... it's starting to get kind of embarrassing," he says.

Rhodes says the starting proposal put forth by Speaker of the House John Boehner is unacceptable to Tea Party members, and he knows that even that will be weakened as negotiations play out.

Sal Russo, a co-founder of one of the nation's biggest Tea Party groups, the Tea Party Express, says the biggest failure Republicans have had "is getting the debate to be about raising taxes instead of about cutting spending."

Russo insists that Boehner stand firm against raising taxes on upper-income Americans as part of any deal, but he rejects the established Tea Party image as being unwilling to compromise.

"We're not adverse to compromise, and you've got to have the votes. And let's face it, conservatives don't have the votes in the Senate, and we don't have the vote in the White House," he says. "So we can't win everything, but what we can't do is lose everything."

It's a far cry from the bravado of the Tea Party after its big gains in the 2010 midterm elections. But in this year's election, the Tea Party lost about one-sixth of its members in Congress. Now comes the latest to depart — South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who announced his resignation Thursday. He's going to the top job at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

A new survey in South Carolina — an early Tea Party hotbed — shows a decline in public support as well. Winthrop University professor Scott Huffmon says two years ago, more than 30 percent of South Carolina Republicans and voters leaning Republican said they were Tea Party members. Today, he says, just under 10 percent of those voters describe themselves as members of the Tea Party.

National polls also show a decline. That means less fear of Tea Party retribution. A possible sign of that is a move by GOP leadership in Congress this week stripping four members who have bucked the leadership on key votes of their prime committee assignments. Among them is Tea Party caucus member Tim Huelskamp, a first-term congressman from Kansas who will no longer sit on the budget and agriculture committees.

"In a way, it was clearly vindictive and petty and certainly provides no real ways to enhance how we make decisions here in Washington, D.C.," he says.

But if there have been strong attacks by Tea Party activists about how Boehner is handling these very early stages of talks with the White House, the reaction from many Tea Party members in Congress has been much more careful. Take Arizona Rep. Trent Franks, when asked about Boehner on the topic of the fiscal cliff Thursday:

"I do think he is trying to do the best he can, and I don't want to second-guess him. We'll just have to see what comes back, and I'll do what I believe to be right for the country, no matter what else happens," he said.

There has also been a noticeable absence of any kind of visible Tea Party push. Still, Huffmon of Winthrop University says even though the ranks of the Tea Party are smaller, the issues that gave the movement life are still there.

"They're still floating around. It's sort of like elements in a solution, when you're electroplating. All you have to do is stick a wire in there and run a charge through it," he says, "and I do believe they could be brought back and galvanized."

Huffmon says an eventual deal addressing the so-called fiscal cliff could help provide that charge.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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