Tea party faithful rally in the rain. Their message to Congress: Get tough.

Tea party supporters from around the country demanded Republicans keep their promise to cut the budget. Democrats and 'liberals' were the target of their ire, but the GOP leadership wasn't spared.

Evan Vucci/AP
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota gestures while addressing a Tea Party 'Continuing Revolution Rally' on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 31.

It was a chilly, drizzly day in the middle of the week, but tea party activists still turned out a couple of hundred supporters Thursday at a rally near the Capitol.

They came from around the country to send a message to Congress: Cut spending – a lot. “Keep your promise: $100 billion,” read one protester’s sign, referring to a 2010 Republican campaign pledge to reduce government spending by $100 billion.

Inside the Capitol, negotiations continued toward a budget deal that, thus far, looked to be coming in well below that figure. If agreement cannot be reached by April 8, the government will shut down.

Speaker after speaker depicted the Democrats – especially Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – as the bad guys. But there were also shots across the bow of the House Republican leadership, which appears more interested in compromising than in risking blame for a shutdown.

“I say to the Republican leadership, take off your lace panties,” said Kathy Dirr of the Tea Party Patriots. “Stop being noodle-backs. Take a strong, bold, unwavering stand for and with the American people.”

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R) of Texas, a member of the House Tea Party Caucus, echoed that view, praising the protesters: “You bring calcium to those who need it for their backbone.”

Rep. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana, a tea party favorite in Congress, urged taking a hard line on budget cuts – and if that meant a shutdown, then so be it.

“If liberals in the Senate would rather play political games and shut down the government instead of making a small down payment on fiscal discipline and reform, I say, shut it down,” Congressman Pence said, eliciting a chant of “Cut or shut! Cut or shut!” from the crowd. Republicans worried about blame for a shutdown might not be so happy with Pence for that.

The Tea Party Caucus organizer – and possible presidential candidate – Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota showed off her crowd-rallying skill in a rousing pep talk.

“It’s so wonderful to see that all of you are still fighting,” Congresswoman Bachmann said. “There are people here in Washington, D.C., who thought after the November election that you were all going to go home and go back to sleep. Is that true?”

“No!” the crowd shouted back.

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“You’re revved up, you’re fighting,” said Bachmann, who called for elimination of “Obamacare” and federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

Several House freshmen tea partyers – including Reps. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho, Joe Walsh (R) of Illinois, and Allen West (R) of Florida – also spoke, to big applause. Another high point came when the top Senate tea partyers – Jim DeMint of South Carolina and freshman Rand Paul of Kentucky – appeared, unannounced.

Still, given the roadblock in the Democratic-controlled Senate, it doesn’t look as if the tea party is going to get the spending cuts it wants. And so the movement is already looking ahead to the next election, its next opportunity to boost its ranks in Washington.

On the nascent 2012 presidential race, tea partyers interviewed at Thursday’s rally were all over the map. One attendee from Washington, D.C., who declined to give his name, said he was initially excited about former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), but was now interested in billionaire Donald Trump, because of his focus on President Obama’s birth certificate.

Janet Cook of Pittsburgh said she liked Pence or DeMint for president, but neither is running. So now she’s considering Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota. “He’s proven he’s a true conservative in the way he’s governed,” she said. “Bachmann and Palin are too polarizing to get elected.”

But Palin and Bachmann are the top picks of Dale McCoy, an electrical foreman at a manufacturing plant in Pittsburgh. “They are strong enough and intelligent enough to stand up for our core values and our principles and they articulate them well,” he says. Ultimately, though, he leans more toward Bachmann, “since the left has done so much damage to Palin.”

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