The outcome of the battle over the debt ceiling will be an early indicator of whether the tea party remains relevant, South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint said Tuesday, adding that he felt the movement was losing "focus."
At a luncheon at the conservative Heritage Foundation, the Senate Tea Party Caucus co-founder told a group of activists and bloggers that he was unsure where the tea party is heading. He also questioned the power of the movement since the 2010 mid-term elections.
"What's up with the Tea Party right now?" asked Heritage President Ed Feulner near the end of the meeting. "We're not hearing much right now."
"I really don't know," DeMint said. "As I move around, people are telling me they're out there and they're engaged, but since the election they have not had as much of a focus."
In 2009 and 2010, thousands of people took to the streets in cities around the country under the tea party banner to protest President Obama's legislative agenda. But since Republicans took control of the House and beefed up their ranks in the Senate, participation at tea party rallies—and the number of rallies themselves—has waned.
Republicans in Congress are now embroiled in a debate over reducing federal spending in return for a vote to raise the debt ceiling. DeMint has led the charge in the Senate, demanding a constitutional amendment that would force the federal government to balance its budget annually. But he said it's crucial for the tea party to pressure other Republicans looking to compromise.
If they don't, DeMint suggested, it could be an indicator that the tea party is losing steam.
"We've got well over 100 outside groups and well over 100 tea party groups that are focused on this Cut, Cap, Balance and we'll see in the next few days if they still have the energy and the passion to affect policy here in Washington," he said. "If we can't move some votes in the House and Senate with that, it's going to be a little bit discouraging right now. It's not only make or break time for Republicans, it's make or break time for the tea party. "
"I'm looking for some signals that they're not only still awake, but that they've gained power," he said. "Hopefully we'll see them."
During the luncheon, DeMint touched on his hopes for the Republican presidential field. He is hosting a forum for the candidates on Labor Day weekend, where he plans to drill the contenders on their conservative bona fides.
In the meantime, he said, he's warning fellow conservatives to keep their mouths shut when it comes to making endorsements this early in the game.
"I think we're going to have a good field," DeMint said. "I'm encouraging people...not to endorse early. One of the things I found out last time is as soon as you endorse the candidates, they stop listening and go on to endorse somebody else. The longer we all hold out as conservatives the better chance we have of uniting behind a candidate to make sure our nominee reflects the heart and soul of our party."
He said that he thought the field wasn't completely settled, adding that Texas Gov. Rick Perry's entrance into the race would "stir things up."
"I think he'll be a great candidate," DeMint said. "He brings a good economic message, and one that's credible being governor in Texas."
"I think our field is also developing," he added. "We'll be down to three or four viable candidates in the fall."