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Freshman Senator Mike Lee came to Washington as a standard-bearer of the Tea Party movement, vowing to change the capital's crony culture. The Utah Republican also came saddled with almost $64,000 in campaign debt. Now he's embracing one of Capitol Hill's time-honored traditions: repaying those IOUs with contributions from big business and other special interests.
On Feb. 10 corporate lobbyists feted Lee at a $250-a-head debt-retirement dinner at the headquarters of the lobbying firm Polaris Consulting. It was a chance to pay down what he owes, and pick up new donors, while 11,000 conservative activists and lobbyists were in Washington for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. "No one that I'm aware of has said that once someone who believes in the need to change Washington gets to Washington that they shouldn't do what they can to make sure that their campaign assets are adequately funded," says Lee.
Freshman Representative Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who hosted a $500-a-person event the night before the CPAC confab at Sonoma, a Capitol Hill wine bar and bistro, put it more simply: "Having fundraisers is what we do in office."
Even Tea Partiers must stay financially solvent. To do so, they're reaching out to corporate political action committees with deep pockets and legislative wish lists. According to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan watchdog group, almost one-fifth of the 87 new Republican House members held fundraisers around the Feb. 10-12 CPAC gathering at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. Dozens more have held receptions in swanky Capitol Hill restaurants and corporate townhouses since their swearing-in last month. "A lot of members did say they were coming to Washington to change it," says Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation. "It's very hard to change it when you are sitting down with the kinds of lobbyists who are interested in keeping the status quo."
Lee's overthrow of incumbent Utah Senator Bob Bennett in a Republican state convention last year was one of the first demonstrations of Tea Party power. His dinner was hosted by Microsoft (MSFT) lobbyist Frank Cavaliere and Polaris co-founder Bryan Cunningham, who has represented Microsoft, Verizon Communications (VZ), Southern Co. (SO), and AT&T (T), Senate records show. Microsoft spent almost $7 million last year to lobby on a range of issues, including an overhaul of the patent system. On Feb. 3 the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a patent reform bill, which Microsoft supports, that could give legal advantages to large companies that can file patents quickly. Brian Phillips, a Lee spokesman, says the senator "will certainly evaluate the proposal and make a determination on the merits only" when it reaches the floor. Cavaliere and Cunningham declined to comment.
Freshman Representatives Dan Benishek (R-Mich.), Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), and Austin Scott (R-Ga.) made it easy for donors to give to the One Nation Political Action Committee, a fundraising group for Tea Party candidates, by holding what they called a Scotch & Cigars event in an executive suite at the Marriott. CPAC attendees could walk, checkbook in hand, across the hotel lobby to the smoke-filled room. The entrance fee, as high as $5,000 for PACs wishing to be listed as a "patron," entitled attendees to a "selection of whiskey, wine, and cigars as well as good conversation with fellow conservatives."
Across town, for donors who preferred action to small talk, the National Rifle Assn. hosted a "Laser Shoot Out & Hard Times Chili" for Representative Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) at the group's Washington offices. No real guns were involved; guests could play a video game that simulated hunting.
Notably absent from the CPAC festivities was Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who wowed last year's gathering with a fiery speech that won numerous standing ovations. This time, Rubio stayed in Florida in part to attend a fundraiser by the Republican Party of Pinellas County. In December he picked up more than $97,000 in contributions from the PACs of Caterpillar (CAT), Comcast (CMCSA), American Airlines (AMR), and others, Federal Election Commission records show. "It's all about Florida and getting back home and connection to real people," Rubio says of his decision to skip the event. And real money, too.
The bottom line: With money to raise, Tea Partiers have been embracing the Washington ritual of mingling with lobbyists and special interests.
Corporate donations to Tea Party Republicans began shortly after the Nov. 2 election
Kirby Corp., 11/5, $3,500
Fed. of Amer. Hospitals, 11/15, $2,500
Comcast, 12/16, $5,000
Tyco International, 12/20, $5,000
American Airlines, 12/22, $5,000
Honeywell, 12/6, $2,500
Wal-Mart, 12/7, $5,000
Time Warner, 12/8, $5,000
Koch Industries, 11/5, $5,000
Ernst & Young, 11/16, $5,000
Publix, 11/17, $5,000
Marriott, 12/14, $1,000
Caterpillar, 12/27, $5,000
Wal-Mart, 12/27, $1,000