WASHINGTON The tea party returned to Capitol Hill on Wednesday, but this time the don't-tread-on-me crowd trod upon one of its own.
Much of the scene was familiar: the yellow flags, the banners protesting tyranny and socialism, the demands to impeach President Obama and to repeal Obamacare. But there was a new target of the conservatives' ire: Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and his "amnesty" plan for illegal immigrants. The loathing of this onetime darling of the movement Rubio rode the tea party wave to office in 2010 could be seen in the homemade signs on the East Lawn of the Capitol proclaiming, "Rubio RINO" (Republican In Name Only) and "Rubio Lies, Americans Die." Rubio antagonism became a main theme of the event, held by Republican Reps. Steve King of Iowa, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and other opponents of the bipartisan Senate immigration legislation that Rubio negotiated.
The lawmakers called to the microphone the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector, who delivered a sustained rebuke of the turncoat. "Marco Rubio," he charged, "has not read his own bill."
A chorus of boos rose from the crowd of several hundred.
Rector mocked the claim that the legislation wouldn't cost taxpayers money.
"Liars! Liars!" the crowd replied.
"Senator Rubio says that (illegal immigrants) are going to have to pay a penalty, 'cause this bill is tough," Rector said, derisively.
"Boo! Liar! Liar!"
"The thing I find most offensive of all is Senator Rubio's staff saying that we need to have more low-skill immigrants because American workers can't cut it," Rector went on.
"That's a lie! Lies! Boo!"
Rector asked rhetorically how many undocumented immigrants would receive government benefits. "How about seven, Senator Rubio, 7 million illegal immigrants?"
"Primary Rubio!" somebody in the crowd shouted.
The speed with which the tea party turned on Rubio is stunning, beginning earlier this year with complaints from conservative commentators and now open mockery at a Capitol Hill rally. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, declared this week that the House won't take up an immigration bill that doesn't have majority support in the Republican caucus, which means the "Gang of Eight" Senate bill that Rubio sponsored wouldn't get a vote.
The immigration event was essentially a bid by the lawmakers to hijack the crowd of about 1,000 (respectable, if a faint echo of the 2009 and 2010 crowds) that was already assembling at the Capitol on Wednesday for a tea party rally against the IRS on the other side of the building. Calling their event a rally might have been too obvious a theft, so the lawmakers staged an all-day "press conference."
This was a news conference unlike any other. It ran from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (with a two-hour break to minimize overlap with the other rally), began with a prayer, included chants of "USA! USA!" and featured politicians holding babies onstage.
The few reporters who did pose questions during the extravaganza were cheered or booed based on their employers: an extended ovation for a reporter from the conservative Breitbart News website, jeers for Lisa Desjardins of CNN and cascading boos for a Huffington Post reporter.
The gimmick was a big draw, luring so many from the IRS protest that Capitol Police complained of a crowding problem for the supposed news conference. Gohmert rallied opposition to Boehner, saying the speaker's assurances to conservatives on immigration leave room for "a betrayal."
"Get rid of him!" people shouted from the crowd.
Bachmann further stirred up the activists by telling them that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is accelerating a vote on the legislation because of "falling support for the Gang of Eight immigration reform bill."
But the news-conference format, and the shortage of reporters willing to play along, created an open-mike situation. A man claiming to be from the Pittsburgh tea party asked about "the illegal people" and whether the government could find out "who they're calling back in their home countries and to whom they're sending money, American money."
Heritage's Rector fielded that question. "I regard my vote as something like a property right," he said, "and when you give it out willy-nilly and freely to people whose claim on that property right is that they broke our laws, I feel deeply insulted. And I say, 'You stole from me!'"
The cheers that followed could be heard clearly on the Senate side of the Capitol.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.