(This story differs from the version on page 39 of the print magazine to reflect that Bachmann withdrew her bid for a leadership post.)
House Republicans had just trounced Democrats in the midterm elections, and Representative Michele Bachmann was already at it again. The Minnesota Republican said in a Nov. 3 CNN interview that President Barack Obama's 10-day trip to Asia was costing taxpayers $200 million a day, an example of "over-the-top spending." It was the kind of shoot-from-the-mouth statement that has made Bachmann, a tax lawyer, anti-abortion activist, and Tea Party Caucus founder, famous—and her fellow Republicans cringe.
Now she wants respect.
Shortly after the election, Bachmann began a long-shot campaign for chairman of the House Republican Conference, the No. 4 leadership position. In challenging Representative Jeb Hensarling, a four-term fiscal conservative from Texas, for the leadership position, she tried to take on a popular member of the GOP Establishment. "I think my very strong clear voice has lent confidence to the Tea Party movement, and I think they've been vindicated" by the Nov. 2 elections, Bachmann said in an interview on Nov. 8.
It didn't work. Two days later, she withdrew from the leadership race after Hensarling picked up endorsements from Republicans popular with fiscal conservatives like Texas Representative Ron Paul.
Still, her stock is up. The Tea Party Caucus, now at 53 members, could swell to more than 80 when 28 or so Tea Party-backed freshmen arrive in January. By comparison, the fiscally moderate Blue Dog Democrats were more than halved, dropping to just 25 members from 53. The Congressional Black Caucus, another powerful coalition, has just 39 members. Bachmann, 54, from the Twin City suburbs, proved she has fundraising skills, too: She raised $11 million for her campaign, more than the likely new House Speaker, John Boehner of Ohio.
It remains to be seen if the Tea Party Caucus, which has met only a few times since its July founding, will be a real force. Congress has dozens of caucusesthere's one for wine lovers and one for biking enthusiaststhat rarely meet and don't have much ability to influence votes.
One of Bachmann's supporters says she can help insulate newcomers from pressure from the Republican Establishment. "She's less likely to come back to us and ask us to go along with the leadership," says Representative Steve King of Iowa. "The conscience of a conservative will always be there at their shoulder."
Bachmann says she also plans to form a second group, the Constitutional Conservative Caucus, that will work to "stop any bill from passing" that it considers unconstitutional. The group's purpose, she told Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, is to bring in freshmen Republican lawmakers, "because quite quickly, within a matter of two months, these people can be co-opted into the Washington system."
Her divisive style makes some Republicans nervous. "She's a renegade," says Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor. "And she's made pretty plain that you can't trust the Republican leadership." Bachmann is prone to politically incorrect and sometimes inaccurate statements. She labeled the auto bailouts "gangster government" and said the Group of 20 nations was "one short step" away from "one world government."
As for Obama's Asia trip, White House officials won't release the price tag, citing security concerns. But it likely falls far short of $200 million a day, according to PolitiFact.com, a St. Petersburg Times fact-checking service. A March 2000 trip to India and Pakistan by President Bill Clinton, at the time considered one of the most expensive Presidential forays in history, was estimated by the Air Force Times to cost about $10 million a day.
The bottom line Michele Bachmann's Tea Party Caucus could exceed 80 members next year, handing her influence over a powerful voting bloc.