A not-so-tiny gaggle of conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill gathered yesterday for the first-ever meeting of their "Tea Party Caucus", giving new and slightly unexpected legitimacy to the rag-tag and rowdy political movement that has swept across the US since the election of Barack Obama.
The inaugural session came days after Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman who competes with Sarah Palin for the Tea Party's most-popular-woman title, announced that she was creating the group. It will, she said yesterday, serve as a "receptacle" in Washington for the views of ordinary citizens.
While Tea Partiers may have made it to the steps of Congress before, most notably with its massively attended march on Washington last autumn, now, thanks to Ms Bachmann, they have a foothold directly inside its hallowed halls. It also gives them a formal base inside the congressional Republican Party, which it has already been steadily nudging further to the right.
The new group, which has attracted 24 members, all Republican, joins a long roster of others in the House of Representatives. Some wield clout and influence, such as the Hispanic and the Black Caucus, while many others are more obscure: the Americans Abroad Caucus, for example.
How the Tea Party Caucus, headed by the outspoken Ms Bachmann, will prosper remains to be seen. While Democrats are wary of the new political contours the movement is tracing, particularly ahead of the midterm congressional elections in November, so too are many moderate Republicans.
The party's top leadership has so far not joined or even voiced support for it, perhaps because Ms Bachmann revealed only last weekend that she was creating the caucus after not bothering, apparently, to tell anyone in the Republican hierarchy what she was up to. But beyond any personal pique that may have caused, Republican strategists remain ambivalent about a movement that is not unified and has made no bones about its desire to sabotage moderate Republican candidates that do not fit its small-government, no-tax, squelch-the-(Obama)-socialists creed.
Their leeriness has been deepened by recent allegations of racism in its ranks. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP, accused the Tea Party of tolerating racists, the radio DJ leader of one faction within it, the Tea Party Express, shot back with a crassly racist parody of the NAACP. His group was expelled from the movement for it.
The assumption of the new caucus crown by Ms Bachmann will surely also repel some Republican moderates. There is barely an anti-Obama slogan she has not embraced. She is soon to star in a documentary, Socialism: A Clear and Present Danger, which describes Americans as "indentured slaves" to their government and puts clips of Obama alongside Castro and Stalin.
In a statement announcing the launch of the caucus, Ms Bachmann said that the "American people are doing their part and making their voices heard and this caucus will prove there are some here in Washington willing to listen".
The most senior member of the group is Mike Pence, a congressman from Indiana who ranks number three in seniority among Republicans in the House. "I think caucuses represent an opportunity for members to get together and to share ideas, and my hope is that this Tea Party Caucus would do the same, and also would be an avenue for bringing some of the energy and enthusiasm and the focus that I've seen from the national march on Washington," said Mr Pence, alluding to the Tea Party march of last autumn.
A poll by Politico.com suggested that one-quarter of Americans now believe the Tea Party is headed to becoming a "viable third party in American politics". It is a perception that will surely grow with the caucus now in business.