Discuss as:

Senate Tea Partiers aim for interactive "caucus"

The question, roared by one of the newest members of the Senate in a cavernous Capitol Hill hearing room, was this: "Is the Tea Party still a force in America?"

About 100 activists, who were gathered to listen to the the inaugural meeting of the Senate "Tea Party Caucus," delivered a resounding "yeah."

The setting -- a room that's held such press-saturated moments of D.C. importance as the last eight Supreme Court confirmation hearings -- wasn't exactly typical for the small-government, anti-establishment crowd dotted with yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags.

But attendees seemed right at home. And the newly-elected lawmakers, fresh from casting their first series of votes and receiving word of their first committee assignments, were careful to say that their "caucus" isn't the stodgily formal assembly that the Washington-speak might imply.

"This caucus exists not for the purpose of speaking for or on behalf of any one organization or any one citizen,"  said freshman Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. "It serves instead as an effective forum through which you and other Constitution-loving, freedom-embracing Americans can communicate your ideas to members of the United States Senate."

"Some said when people who came from the Tea Party were elected that Washington would co-opt us," said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.  "The interesting thing is that I think we're already co-opting Washington."

Paul noted that the Tea Party's anti-spending mantra is starting to seep its way into words coming out of some unlikely mouths.

"I went to my first State of the Union the other day, and guess who's now against earmarks?" Paul said gleefully. "The president of the United States has been co-opted by the Tea Party!"

But, he added, "I don't think he's necessarily happy about it."

Small but growing
Lee and Paul were joined by Sen. Jim DeMint -- whose early backing during the campaign provided a boost for many Tea Party-affiliated candidates -- as the formally announced members of the caucus. Two other freshman senators - Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Jerry Moran of Kansas - also spoke at the event. (It's unclear if Toomey considers himself a formal member of the caucus; Moran told reporters after his remarks that he is joining.)  Other Tea Party-affiliated activists, including anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist and FreedomWorks' Matt Kibbe, also addressed the crowd.

DeMint, the only non-freshman of the group, enjoyed the ovation of activists who credit him as a kingmaker for conservative candidates, but he underscored that the gratitude should flow in the other direction.

Gesturing to his two co-caucus members, DeMint smiled broadly. "Thank you for sending me some help!" he told the audience.

But for the short term, that help likely isn't enough to enact major changes in the world's most deliberative body.  Outright repeal of the Obama-backed health care reform bill, as well as spending cuts dramatic enough to sharply reduce the deficit, likely aren't acheivable in the Senate, where Democrats retain a majority. (The fiscally-conservative movement has more numerical steam in the House. A corresponding Tea Party caucus on the other side of the Capitol dome, led by Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, boasts about two dozen members.)

"We don't yet have the numbers to do all the good things that we need to do," DeMint acknowledged.

Instead, the Tea Party lawmakers pinpointed the passage of a balanced budget amendment, the elimination of congressional earmarks, and the prevention of a "naked" raise in the federal debt ceiling (one without offsetting deficit-reducing measures) as key agenda items to push until the next election, when the number of like-minded senators could grow.

Not every Republican who received Tea Party backing during the election opted to attend the first meeting. Sen. Marco Rubio, who received support from DeMint during the 2010 campaign, is holding out from formally joining the caucus. And new GOP freshmen Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire have also said they're not considering themselves part of the group at this time.

Paul told reporters that he didn't view any declined invitations as "snubs."  Of the five senators who did attend, he said, "I think that's a great beginning."

Paul, who organized Thursday's event, said that he hopes to have caucus meetings "quarterly," perhaps timed in advance of key votes on fiscal issues close to the members' hearts.

And maybe the next time, the setting will be a little less, well, Senate-y.

'If it's warm enough, maybe we can even do it outside," Paul said. "A couple hundred thousand people would be fine."

NBC's Ken Strickland contributed.