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WASHINGTON -- Several major players in the tea party movement on Thursday announced a new federation intended to help the decentralized movement gets its message out.

But don't call them organized.

The National Tea Party Federation will issue news releases, respond to critics and help spread the word about tea party rallies and initiatives, organizers said. But they were careful to note it would not change the loose, grassroots structure of the movement.

"It's an evolution," said tea party activist Mark Skoda. "Not an organization. We're not co-opting a movement. We're not creating a new leadership structure."

Still, the federation is an acknowledgement of the limits of an undisciplined and disjointed political movement. In the year since it arose as a series of protests across the country, the tea party movement has mobilized thousands into activism and established itself as the most active force in conservative politics. But it also has openly aired embarrassing internal disputes and has been slow to respond to critics who have painted protesters as racists.

"It took us 72 hours to respond to John Lewis," Skoda said, referring to the longtime Georgia Democratic congressman and civil rights leader who said a tea party protester use a racial epithet at a protest against the health care bill. "We're not needing to meet every week. But there will now be a way to have a call to arms to respond to attacks with a crisp and clear message."

The announcement comes as the tea party movement is preparing for another round of protests and the scrutiny that follows. Groups across the country are planning Tax Day rallies next week, including large events in Washington, Atlanta, Sacramento and Orlando. Organizers said the federation would not be raising money or hiring a staff. Decisions would be made via conference calls among the various groups.

Skoda's Memphis TEA Party was one of 21 groups signed on to the federation on Thursday. The list included the Nashville-based Tea Party Nation, the organizers of a tea party convention earlier this year and Tea Party Express, a bus tour currently hosting rallies across the country.

The federation also had formed alliances with an additional 19 organizations, some of which were longtime stalwarts of Republican politics. They include anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, the socially conservative Family Research Council, National Taxpayers Union, FreedomWorks and Republican direct mail consultant Richard Viguerie.

Missing from the announcement was Tea Party Patriots, the best-organized online network of local tea party groups. Skoda said Tea Party Patriots was invited to join but was taking a "wait-and-see approach." A spokeswoman for the group did not respond to a request for comment.