Congressional leaders are inching closer to a deal on how much to cut federal spending for the next six months -- and pretty much ignoring the spending-cut absolutists of the tea party, the grass-roots movement that's losing influence despite having helped elect dozens of Republicans last November.
Tea party activists had hoped to send a loud message Thursday to Republican lawmakers, telling them at a long-scheduled Capitol Hill rally either to stick to tough budget-slashing principles or face the movement's wrath.
Instead, only a few hundred people showed up.
Meanwhile, inside the Capitol, experienced lawmakers of both parties reported progress toward a pragmatic budget compromise.
The weak rally showing could boomerang on tea party activists by emboldening the GOP leaders who are negotiating the federal budget with Democrats and the White House.
How all this plays out in the politics of the 2012 elections is anybody's guess, but it wouldn't be the first time that a populist movement sputtered after making a splash in an election. Remember the GOP's "Contract With America" success in 1994, when Republicans won control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years? The GOP lost the next two elections.
Evidence is piling up that the tea party movement has passed its peak. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll March 11-13 found that only 32 percent of Americans viewed the tea party favorably, down by 5 points from December. Those who viewed it unfavorably totaled 47 percent, up by 4 from December. The survey's margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The tea party appears to be suffering three ailments common to grass-roots efforts that suddenly vault onto the political scene: Mainstream politicians tend to adopt enough of the movement's ideas to dilute their power, movement backers learn that the legislative system isn't easily navigated, and activists simply get worn out and lose energy.
"The problem in American politics is for a reform movement to maintain viability for very long," said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.
The movement's loss of energy was obvious Thursday. Tea party supporters had promoted a noon rally for weeks to "turn screws on Congress." Under a steady drizzle, only about 500 people stood on the muddy Capitol grounds chanting, "We want less." Rep. Michael R. Pence, R-Ind., told them, "It's time to pick a fight."
But no major Republican congressional leaders showed up.
Inside the Capitol, GOP leaders tried to cool activists' expectations.
"I'm glad that they're here," said House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. "I'm glad they're engaged in the process."
But he offered a sober reminder about the limits of GOP power: "We can't impose our will on the Senate. All we can do is to fight for all of the spending cuts that we can get an agreement to, and all of the spending limitations, as well."
Congressional leaders and Vice President Biden appear to have settled on finding $33 billion in cuts, and they've already cut $10 billion, so they need to find only $23 billion more in a budget totaling $3.8 trillion, or far less than 1 percent.
That's way less than the $61 billion that the tea party protesters demand for fiscal 2011 as a down payment on far deeper cuts later.
Negotiators are still working out details, but the spirit of compromise is in the air, as many Republicans realize that to win elections, particularly with moderate voters, they need to show a willingness to work with others -- and perhaps not to appear too tightly bound to the tea party.
Later this year, a fight is likely over funding the government for fiscal 2012. Longer-term funding of politically sensitive programs, including Medicare and Social Security, may well get caught up in that fight.