While Sen. Jim DeMint’s internecine warfare may rub his fellow Republicans the wrong way, it appears there is little, if anything, they can do to rein him in.
No Senate Republicans would discuss the issue on the record, and the few that would talk explained that most in the party think the best course of action is to ignore the irascible South Carolinian, at least for now.
“Jim DeMint isn’t the most effective legislator, so he has to gain power by driving headlines. His Achilles’ heel is everyone saying, no comment,'” a Republican said.
Part of the problem, Republicans said, is the simple fact that in the Senate there is little leadership can do institutionally to curb troublesome Members, and the culture of the chamber discourages using even those options that are available. “It’s the same thing with every Senator. There’s nothing you can do to any of them,” a GOP aide said.
Republicans’ relationship with DeMint is further muddied by the fact that, while they may not like his constant attacks on them, he is a driving force in an election cycle that will likely see their numbers swell. “It’s sort of annoying … but if he helps get Members elected, more power to him,” the aide said.
Nevertheless, some elements of the party would like to see DeMint punished in some form. For instance, Republicans on and off Capitol Hill recently — and quietly — discussed the possibility of taking away his chairmanship of the Senate Republican Steering Committee, a quasi-leadership role that provides DeMint a platform from which to push his conservative crusade.
According to numerous Republicans familiar with the issue, the hope had been to recruit Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to challenge DeMint for the post. Coburn is as conservative as DeMint, which would shield him against attacks from conservative activists and limiting accusations that the GOP was stifling conservative demands.
Coburn was also an attractive possibility because unlike DeMint, he has retained good relations with the Conference’s traditional and moderate Republicans. And since Coburn is increasingly seen as the staunchest supporter of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the party’s conservative wing, he would likely win broad support from his colleagues.
But Coburn spokesman John Hart said the Oklahoman would not challenge DeMint’s control of the committee.
“Dr. Coburn strongly supports Sen. DeMint for Steering chairman and hopes to serve with other new Members who will help change Congress’ borrow-and-spend culture,” Hart said.
Even if DeMint’s opponents could find another Senator willing to make a bid for Steering, it appears unlikely they would succeed in supplanting him.
Although DeMint has long been a supporter of open government and transparency, he is the beneficiary of one of the more secretive bodies in the Senate, Steering’s executive committee.
Composed of eight Republican lawmakers — who sources said are all extremely conservative and loyal to DeMint — the executive committee keeps their identity secret, even from other members of the GOP Conference. A DeMint spokesman, who declined to comment on concerns within the Conference regarding his boss, would not identify the executive committee members, noting that as an informal organization it is not required to disclose its membership.
And because the executive committee decides who will be the Steering chairman, it is all but certain DeMint would likely survive a challenge.
Forcing him out of Steering could also pose other challenges. A former Senate Republican aide said DeMint could simply start a new caucus or other semiofficial Senate organization. “He could just start the Senate Tea Party Caucus, and you’d have the same problem,” the aide said.
More Draconian measures are also not available to McConnell, even if he were to pursue them.
DeMint does not serve as ranking member on any official committees, and professes no interest in running for a formal leadership position, so Republicans cannot attempt to force him out of a top position. (Such moves are rarely attempted in the Senate, and even more rarely successful.)
Other, less drastic measures have thus far had little effect on DeMint.
Peer pressure has traditionally been the most commonly used tool of persuasion in the genteel Senate. Unfortunately for McConnell, that has not served Republicans well in dealing with DeMint.
Colleagues have repeatedly criticized DeMint’s attacks on Republicans — including his recent denunciation of the Conference’s decision not to strip Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) of her Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking membership — to little avail.
Even private pressure has had little effect. After the dustup over Murkowski, McConnell warned his colleagues during a closed-door luncheon that, with the election so close, they should avoid attacks on one another, according to several Republicans familiar with the discussions.
DeMint promised to hold his fire. But he was back at it a few days later, saying at a rally for Kentucky GOP Senate candidate Rand Paul that he was excited to have “not just two but eight or 10 Senators” as conservative as DeMint to push the bulk of the GOP Conference to the right.
Leaders in both parties have also used the power of the purse as a subtle way to reign in wayward Members. But while the threat of reduced earmarks or other appropriations priorities can often be used to bring Members in line, DeMint position as an anti-earmark crusader makes it an ineffective threat.
Threatening to slow-walk DeMint’s legislative agenda is also a nonstarter. Even if McConnell were Majority Leader, his to-do list traditionally draws minimal support, even from fellow Republicans.
DeMint has spent most of his legislative career as an outsider, championing transparency and government reform issues. Because he consistently has to fight to bring his measures to the floor, threats to hold up his bills are largely hollow.
And so, Republicans said, they are essentially left with only one option: ignoring DeMint and hoping the lack of attention is punishment enough.
“It’s like a piece of fruit. If you leave it on the counter long enough, it will spoil and go rotten on its own. I feel like that’s what’s going to happen with Jim DeMint,” a GOP aide said.