DeMint Tries GOP Patience

Posted November 20, 2008 at 6:40pm

In the wake of this month’s electoral defeats, Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) staked out an aggressive and even antagonistic position on where he thought his Republican Party should go.

He immediately sought a series of changes to how Senate Republicans operate, called for a return to strict conservative values and began issuing not-so-veiled threats to fellow Senators who didn’t join his crusade.

But instead of igniting a conservative revolution, DeMint has suddenly found himself on the outside looking in — following what GOP sources said was an angry rebuke of his reform demands from party elders during Tuesday’s closed-door Conference meeting.

Publicly, Senate Republicans sought to downplay the tensions between DeMint and much of his Conference.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) — one of several Members who spoke out against DeMint’s proposed changes to the Conference’s leadership rules — said Thursday that while “there’s no feud here,” Republicans in the Senate feel that now is a time for unity, not for taking steps that could undermine leadership.

“I think there’s a realization within the ranks of the Republican Party that now Republicans are an endangered species, and that we should speak with one voice,” Roberts said. “To call for wholesale changes at a time like this that would limit the ability of the leaders to lead was really ill-timed.”

DeMint came into Tuesday’s Conference — during which leaders for the 111th Congress were tapped — hoping to win support for a series of interparty rules changes. Among them were proposals to limit the tenure of top party leaders, committee chairmen and ranking members, to limit the time served on the powerful Appropriations Committee and to eliminate the seniority-based committee assignment process.

DeMint had also planned to offer a motion at the meeting to expel embattled Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska) from the GOP ranks, but pulled that proposal minutes before amid pressure from his fellow Senators.

Senators and aides acknowledged that DeMint’s ideas reignited long-standing tensions with the GOP Conference and his fellow Senators, who often have tried to quiet his flame-throwing ways.

One lawmaker, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that if DeMint is further into the wilderness these days, it is the result of his own ill-advised actions. “I think it’s largely self-inflicted,” the Senator said.

When asked how DeMint could repair some of the apparent damage, the lawmaker declined to comment. “I don’t give Jim DeMint advice.”

For his part, DeMint — who clearly follows his own path — sees a unified party. His spokesman Wesley Denton said: “Sen. DeMint and the Steering Committee are moving forward to unite Americans around the conservative principles we all share. The next year will present many challenges and we’re excited about working together with all Republicans to present a positive agenda for America’s future.”

Several Senate Republicans said they have tired of DeMint’s repeated use of the Senate’s rules to slow up legislation or try to keep the chamber in session, particularly when it was certain his efforts would result in no changes to a bill.

One instance in particular has stuck in the craw of many of his colleagues. This summer, DeMint forced a late vote on an HIV/AIDS bill, but then decided to leave the chamber, forcing his colleagues to carry on the fight without him.

Then, in July, DeMint forced a rare Saturday vote on a massive housing bill. Although he did show up for that vote, many Senate Republicans had had enough with his tactics at that point, they said.

“I think he really jumped the shark with the Saturday vote,” one GOP leadership aide said, adding that while coming in for a weekend vote is not necessarily “a big deal for these guys,” DeMint “ruffled a lot of feathers” by forcing the AIDS vote and not showing up.

Roberts also said DeMint’s use of the Republican Steering Committee to take on other GOP Senators has also caused tensions within the Conference.

Since taking over the RSC in the 110th Congress, DeMint has used the committee as a base for launching a series of conservative crusades, to varying degrees of success. DeMint’s first major feat came during the 2007 immigration battle when he, along with a handful of vocal conservative Senators, such as Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), successfully rallied the party’s base to defeat a massive immigration reform proposal backed by the White House and eventual presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The Steering Committee worked as a base of operations for DeMint and his allies to not only attack the bill, but also coordinate with outside groups to bring pressure on Republicans they believed were not toeing the conservative line.

“DeMint really used the immigration fight as a template” for future skirmishes on issues such as earmark reform, a GOP leadership aide said.

But DeMint also increasingly has used his position as the RSC chairman to take his conservative fight to other Republicans — most recently, his effort to expel Stevens for his seven-count federal felony conviction in October. Stevens has long been a target of DeMint’s efforts to reform the party, given Stevens’ extensive use of the earmarking system to pump billions of federal dollars into his home state.

But DeMint’s decision to “operate an independent group funded by Republicans that would basically be in opposition to other Republicans” rubbed other members of the Conference wrong, Roberts said, arguing that now is not the time for ideological purges. “When you’re an endangered species, you don’t purge like the Kremlin,” Roberts said.

Other Republicans point to DeMint’s increasingly defiant stance against his party’s leadership, particularly in the wake of the elections, as the primary reason for his freshly soured relationship with the Conference.

For instance, following DeMint’s criticism of McCain for abandoning conservative principles, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) ripped into his colleague, telling CNN that, “I think my friend Sen. Jim DeMint should keep this stuff in the caucus and not be out beating up on fellow Republicans.”

Likewise, Republicans privately complained that DeMint’s attacks against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other leaders in the days after the election were not helpful. DeMint made veiled threats that he would work to put his leaders out of power if they did not help push the party back toward a more strictly conservative Conference.

In a statement released following the election, DeMint warned that “a change of command at the highest levels of our current leaders” would be needed if the party continued to follow what he termed a “Democrat light” strategy.

However, this being the Senate, it appears most Republicans are willing to move past their hurt feelings, so long as they feel DeMint is committed to working with them. Roberts noted that in subsequent meetings with DeMint, he has committed to reviewing how the steering panel operates.

“I think Jim means it, and he’s a very capable young man. We need to hear from him and he needs to hear from us,” Roberts said.