Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a potential tea party target in 2012, may be trying to preempt a primary challenge. In an apparent attempt to make nice with the grassroots conservative movement, the senior senator has confirmed his attendance at a tea party town hall on Tuesday night.
Hatch's support for legislation such as bank bailouts and expanded children’s health insurance have caused some heartburn among Republican conservative activists who are agitating for smaller government and reduced taxes.
Underscoring the incongruity -- and the reason -- for Hatch's RSVP: He'll be sharing a podium with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who took the place of Hatch's longtime Senate colleague Robert Bennett, this year. Bennett, a three-term Republican senator, became the tea party's first victim when he was defeated at a GOP convention last spring.
Other lawmakers who will be attending the tea party town hall at the National Press Club: Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who cofounded the new Senate Tea Party Caucus along with Lee, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, and House Tea Party Caucus founder Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.
The Tea Party Express, the group sponsoring Tuesday's forum, was a leading force in the Utah Senate race that ousted Bennett. The group also helped dark-horse GOP Senate candidates knock off establishment front-runners in other states, including Alaska, Delaware, and Nevada.
Tea Party Express spokesperson Levi Russell said that the group didn't invite Hatch to the forum. The senator invited himself.
“Sen. Hatch heard about it and expressed interest,” Russell said. “And it’s a smart move. It’s an effort to reach out to us and the movement at large and say, ‘Hey, I’ve made mistakes, but I’m willing to change.’ It may be too little too late, but that’s up to the voters to decide. Either way, someone like Hatch who’s definitely taken heat from conservatives needs to be prepared to answer some difficult questions.”
The Tea Party Express is billing the forum as an opportunity to take “the power of the tea party to the belly of the beast." (The National Press Club is in downtown Washington, between two of the conservative movement's least-favorite institutions: Congress and the White House.) It's the first forum to feature tea partiers from both congressional chambers.
“One of the biggest complaints from people driving our movement is that they feel like Washington isn’t listening,” Amy Kremer, the group's chairwoman, said. “So this is a chance for us to be heard, an opportunity to promote dialogue between the people and the representatives they’ve sent to Washington.”
But that dialogue will likely be constrained to “the tea party ideals we’ve had on the side of our bus,” Russell said, referring to the group’s bullet points: fiscal responsibility, limited government, and a free market.
The group's leaders showed little interest in wading into recent controversies in the GOP over social conservatism—among them, a boycott of this weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference over the participation of a gay-rights group.
"We’ve never really delved into social issues at all,” Russell said, “So we’ll probably be asking people to keep their questions to that core fiscal-responsibility message, since that’s the sweet spot we all agree on and work toward as a common goal.”
The questions will come from the Press Club audience and a virtual one. Outside-the-Beltway participants are being invited to interrogate the lawmakers via YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The town hall, which runs from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. EST, will also use a new technology that Russell describes as “a chat room, but with live webcams to moderate.”