Skip to comments.DeMint Condition (South Carolina's junior senator is a rising GOP star)
Posted on 04/09/2007 1:57:06 PM PDT by RWR8189
Being in the minority in the Senate is not necessarily fatal. Ask Jim DeMint of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate Steering Committee, a caucus of conservative senators that includes most of the Republican Conference. DeMint has managed to wage and win a handful of battles since the Republican reverses in the midterm elections, drawing on a disarming personality and keen political acumen, and fortified by unwavering conservative convictions.
It all started with his crusade against pork in the lame-duck session of Congress late last year. DeMint, along with Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, set out to eliminate 10,000 earmarks from various bills. They managed to block passage of an "omnibus" bill, forcing Congress to pass a continuing resolution, which maintains spending at the level of the previous year. The CR expired on February 15, and Senate majority leader Harry Reid agreed to pass a CR for the next fiscal year. DeMint views this as a "pretty stunning development," although he ended up voting against the final version on principle because it contained new loopholes for earmarks.
DeMint didn't stop there. He challenged the Senate version of a reform bill that would have required the disclosure of a mere 2 percent of earmarks. Instead, he proposed incorporating House speaker Nancy Pelosi's stronger version of earmark disclosure, which the House had already adopted as part of its rules. Reid proposed tabling DeMint's amendment, but his motion failed by a vote of 46 to 51, and the amendment passed unanimously. While the bill awaits a conference with the House, DeMint proposed incorporating the reforms in the Senate rules by unanimous consent so they would take effect immediately, but the Democrats blocked that motion just last Thursday.
DeMint can put a feather in his cap for shutting down what he calls the "earmark favor factory," at least for a year. Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal calls DeMint the "taxpayers' greatest ally," personally responsible for saving about $17 billion through the first CR. Moore sees DeMint and Coburn as a tag team: DeMint is the behind-the-scenes "utility infielder," Coburn the "lightning rod."
Eliminating pork is not the only way DeMint has sought to improve government. He has been out front on tax cuts, Social Security reform, health care reform, and education reform since he entered the House in 1999. Elected to the Senate in 2004, he was ranked the most conservative senator in 2006 by National Journal and the third most conservative in 2005 by the National Taxpayers Union. He introduced an amendment to repeal the estate tax permanently, and in 2005, with fellow South Carolinian Lindsey Graham, he called for an overhaul of the tax code--abolition of the federal income tax and its replacement with an 8.5 percent sales consumption tax and an 8.5 percent tax on business profits, with a rebate for those below the poverty line. And he has stood by President Bush on Iraq.
In his short time in the Senate, DeMint has garnered the support of his fellow Republicans on some measures, but not all. Similarly, he's sometimes persuaded leaders on the other side of the aisle to cosponsor legislation, but also has had run-ins with liberal colleagues.
Not unexpectedly, DeMint's hard-line positions have caused headaches in his own party. When he held up the omnibus budget bill last fall, some Republicans who had inserted earmarks criticized him, and some went so far as to incite veterans groups to protest vociferously and turn out press releases smearing DeMint. One DeMint aide said it was lonely at times, with barrages coming from both left and right. DeMint admits that it's a balancing act to maintain strong relationships with fellow senators while pushing for reforms.
DeMint tries to use his post as steering committee chairman to guide Republicans in the "right direction." He urged a potential presidential veto of the recent 9/11 Commission recommendations bill if it included collective bargaining for airport security screeners, and mustered 36 signatures to this effect, more than needed to prevent a veto override, sending a clear message to Democrats. In the end, 38 Republicans voted against the Senate's version of the bill when it passed on March 13.
The Republican leadership in the Senate under Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces pressure to compromise with Democrats in order to rack up some legislative accomplishments. One leadership aide says DeMint cares more about doing the right thing than making everybody happy. As steering committee chair, he is always going to have problems with the leadership. DeMint speaks for himself and the conservative bloc; McConnell speaks for all Senate Republicans.
Despite their different functions, however, DeMint and the leadership have a strong relationship. McConnell calls himself a "big DeMint fan," pointing out that DeMint--a free trader from a protectionist state--is willing to go against the grain. When asked whether DeMint will become the next Jesse Helms, holding up bills and sometimes irritating fellow Republicans, McConnell says DeMint has a "different operational style."
DeMint can afford to be a maverick of sorts in the Senate. As Sen. John Thune of South Dakota points out, he is in a "safe political situation," he operates "in a nonconfrontational way," and the Senate is a "great place for one person to affect things" since any senator can block a bill from passing with unanimous consent and so slow down the legislative process. (These kind words, it's worth noting, come from a senator whose pet project--a $2.3 billion loan for a company that had employed Thune as a lobbyist and had contributed to his campaign--was axed by DeMint and Coburn.)
In addition to upsetting some Republicans, DeMint has fired up liberal interest groups, chief among them labor unions, which were incensed by DeMint's efforts to kill the measure that would have allowed Transportation Security Administration unions to engage in collective bargaining on behalf of the workers. They were also miffed at DeMint's efforts to codify Homeland Security regulations preventing serious felons from working in security areas at seaports. DeMint's amendment passed 94-2.
The contents of this amendment had been part of the original SAFE Port bill, but had been killed before the bill became law in October 2006. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union boasted in its October newsletter of having convinced legislators to "strip the amendment down to four disqualifier crimes: an act of terrorism, espionage, treason, or sedition." The crimes the ILWU had removed from the bill included improper transport of a hazardous material, unlawful use of an explosive device, murder, assault with intent to kill, kidnapping or hostage taking, rape or aggravated sexual abuse, unlawful use of a firearm, and immigration violations. A DeMint official told me that no Democrats are willing to debate which crimes to omit, or willing to take credit for gutting them previously in committee.
DeMint dismisses most of the legislation the new Democratic majority has introduced, including collective bargaining and minimum wage increases, as "just for show" to pay back key supporters. In a March 17 column posted on RealClearPolitics, DeMint conceded that his hope for bipartisan cooperation is now "tempered by a hefty dose of political reality" acquired through the fight over collective bargaining at the TSA.
Yet DeMint has found common ground with Democrats on other issues. Nine Senate Democrats aided his quest for earmark disclosure, along with Independent Joseph Lieberman, who helped defeat Reid's tabling motion. And Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon joined with DeMint to form a bipartisan group urging the president to act on health care reform. DeMint says he and Wyden have brainstormed about how to help people get privately insured without raising spending or taxes. Despite their different philosophies, both prefer the private system to socialized care.
Education is another area where DeMint has worked across party lines. Some Democrats, he feels, see education as a social program, not a "workforce development program." To advance his vision, he sought out Sen. Barack Obama--who had taken an interest in Pell grants (and worked with Coburn on earmark disclosure)--in June 2006 to discuss creating Pell-type grants at the high school level. In late September, the two unveiled the Education Opportunity Act, which would provide aid for low-income students to take classes at community colleges, since Advanced Placement courses aren't offered in many low-income districts. An aide to Sen. Obama noted that while this initiative hasn't gone far, the two offices are pursuing other education plans.
And recently, DeMint joined with another Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, to introduce the A-PLUS Act, which would give states more autonomy in deciding how to meet the standards set forth in No Child Left Behind. Part of the idea is to foster competition between states to develop the most effective ways of spending federal dollars.
Despite the victories in numerous areas, at the end of the day you can't win every battle, especially in the minority.
On Social Security, DeMint ac knowledges that the chances of passing private accounts are slim to none. He doesn't understand the opponents' logic--in his words, "It's risky to save and invest it, but it's not risky to spend it." At the time of our interview, he had hopes for the passage of an amendment that would ban the spending of the Social Security surplus and set it aside in a reserve fund, but the amendment failed again on March 22, by a vote of 45-52.
DeMint's ability to carry the mantle for conservative policies, yet work well with those he disagrees with, stems from a disposition that is both congenial and determined. One longtime high-ranking Senate official recalled how DeMint stood his ground after he'd killed the omnibus appropriations bill last year and everyone was coming after him. It was an important moment for the party, said the official. It meant that the Republicans' last act in the majority was not the passage of a bill with 10,000 earmarks, which would have demolished any credibility they might have claimed when the Democrats took over and tried to pass their own spending measures.
Similarly, DeMint's invocation of a presidential veto threat shows that he knows when to weigh in and when to hold back. Steve Moore calls him a "maestro of legislative process," who can be the quietest person in a meeting, and then "strategically intervene" at the opportune moment. Nonthreatening and laid back, DeMint doesn't come across as a "bomb thrower."
Others are starting to notice his leadership ability. Brian Darling, director of Senate relations at the Heritage Foundation, contends that DeMint has come to the "forefront of the conservative movement" in the past two months, having been in the middle of all the major battles of the 110th Congress. In Darling's assessment, with Republicans in the minority, conservatives have the freedom to block or promote legislation without waiting for leadership approval. DeMint fired the "first shot" in the conservative battle against wasteful spending. Although he's a team player, DeMint is not afraid to buck the Bush administration, something Darling sees as an important leadership quality. DeMint's A-PLUS plan has been privately criticized by the administration, but to DeMint, conservative principles trump party loyalty.
OMB director Rob Portman, who worked with DeMint on numerous issues when they were both in the House, then when Portman was U.S. trade representative, has only kind words for the senator. He describes him as a politician who will stick to principle, placing little value on his popularity ratings on Capitol Hill. The two communicate weekly, and they see eye to eye on issues such as trade with China and earmark transparency. They also have their share of differences; while DeMint views the CR as a top accomplishment, Portman hopes that that it won't render the normal appropriations process obsolete.
The CR and earmark reform are important to the ongoing work of repairing the Republican image, DeMint believes. He saw the midterm elections as a call to action and part of a "healthy process." With their earmarking and corruption, Republicans had gotten "off track" and strayed from conservative ideas. In his keynote address to this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, DeMint called on conservatives to "set the record straight and effectively articulate our mission, our values and our vision," adding, "We must be more than right, we must be smart."
As for the future of the party, while most politicians have refrained from taking sides in the '08 primaries this early, DeMint has already pitched his stake in Mitt Romney's tent. He calls Romney a "values-based conservative," saying "no one stands taller" in terms of character and record. DeMint especially praises Romney's original health care plan. As a former businessman himself--he founded and ran a research firm for 15 years--he appreciates the competitive, results-oriented mentality Romney honed by managing the Olympics, businesses, and the commonwealth of Massachusetts.
As for his own future, DeMint says he is tempted to go back into business. For the time being, though, Social Security reform, tax cuts, health care reform, port security, and education reform, not to mention the never-ending mission to curb excess spending (such as $25 million for spinach producers slipped into the emergency war spending bill, which he forced out last week in a 96-1 vote) make for a full agenda. And if his colleagues and "fans" have anything to say about it, we may be following his political career for many years to come.
Whitney Blake is an editorial assistant at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.
Not a word in the article about DeMint’s relationship with Lindsay Graham, the purported “senior” senator from South Carolina.
Graham should take a few lessons from his fellow senator and learn to shut up.
Nice article about DeMint who we have seen at work.
Compare him to Little Lord Linseed.
Thanks for the ping!
I guess I am going to have to take a closer look at the health care plan that Mitt Romney put in place in Massachusetts..
If DeMint is as fiscally conservative as this article says...but, he endorses Mitt based partly on Mitt’s “original” (whatever that means) health plan..then I wonder what it is...because I had heard it was very expensive.
I imagine there's little relationship between Sen DeMint and Pandsey Graham.
However (clears throat :) we all know Pandsey has a "relationship." With who(m?) is a closely guarded secret.
Of course, McCain is a given. Methinks Pandsey fancies himself as McInsane's VP. Yeah, like that's gonna happen. McCain may be mentally deranged, but he's not stoopid.
One of the many reasons why the GOP doesn't deserve conservative's support. They toss good people like DeMint to the curb and support liberal scumbags like Chaffee and Hagel.
none other that Lil Ole Lindsay "Lightshoes" Graham
........the potential McCain VP
Pandsey is McCain’s butt boy. He follows him around like a little anxious puppy dog.
Translation .. he is doing the job he was elected to do
A rare thing to find in Congress these days
Thanks for the ping, Bahbah
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