The Magazine

DeMint Condition

South Carolina's junior senator is a rising GOP star.

Apr 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 29 • By WHITNEY BLAKE
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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.