US ‘tea party’ celebrates fifth anniversary and plans poll impact
Conservative group 'back from the dead' and raring to take on poll battles
US Senator Ted Cruz stood before hundreds of conservatives and with a pointed jab proclaimed that the small-government movement that sent him to Washington last year was alive and kicking.
"I'm a little bit confused," he said, the edges of his mouth rising into a smirk. "I could have sworn I read in The New York Times that the 'tea party' was dead."
And with that, the most influential new political force in decades marked its fifth anniversary, reminding Washington it has bounced back to thrust itself to the fore in time for November's congressional elections.
The grass roots tea party movement grew out of a "Taxed Enough Already" campaign that launched on February 27, 2009.
It swept dozens of fresh-faced legislators such as Senator Rand Paul into Congress the next year on a platform of lower taxes, free-market principles, limited government, fiscal restraint and adherence to the US Constitution.
They rallied against President Barack Obama's health-care proposal, the seemingly never-ending federal bailouts, and skyrocketing national debt.
The tea party name comes from the Boston Tea Party of 1773, a famed act of American colonial defiance that served as a protest against taxation.
But the movement has created a rift in the Republican Party. Its political stock tumbled in 2012 when some of its favoured candidates botched their campaigns.
Also, a conservative gambit to force a showdown over federal spending resulted in a crippling 16-day government shutdown and accusations that the ploy scarred the Republican brand.
Trouble continued in January when House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner defied core conservatives by introducing a US debt ceiling increase with no strings attached.
And yet tea-party-backed legislators insist they remain at the forefront of a conservative revolution.
"It's time for our moment," Senator Mike Lee, a close Cruz ally, told followers gathered in a Washington hotel to celebrate the anniversary.
While stressing that a "gap" exists between the Republican conservative base and political leadership, he acknowledged that the tea party needed to craft a cohesive message, not just antagonise establishment Republicans or throw barbs at Obama and the Democrats.
"To deserve victory, conservatives have to do more than just pick a fight," said Lee, who ousted a Republican incumbent senator in 2010. "We have to win a debate, and to do that, we need more than guts; we need an agenda."
That plan, according to tea party co-founder Jenny Beth Martin, will include efforts to confront National Security Agency and Internal Revenue Service abuses and repeal Obama's health care programme.
"Our work is more vital than ever," she said. "Today, there is hardly a political conversation that doesn't mention us."
But many centrists and Republican leaders have treated the tea party as an annoyance, including Boehner, whom some in the movement want to oust.
Asked for his thoughts on the group's anniversary, Boehner said he had "great respect for the tea party and the energy they've brought to the electoral process".
The movement's clout will be put to the test from next week, when candidates start squaring off against establishment Republicans in House and Senate primaries.