Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) speedy ascension to de facto leader of the Senate’s conservatives may have won him a number of fans among fiscal hawks, reform-minded watchdogs and some fellow Republican Senators, who applaud the first-term Senator for his willingness to buck the chamber’s “Old Boy” traditions. But DeMint’s tactics have started to chafe GOP leaders and prompted private warnings that their tolerance has worn thin.
DeMint led a small group of Republican conservatives who successfully killed immigration reform in June and has openly dueled with Democratic leaders over earmark reform, calling them out for refusing to adopt Senate-specific earmark rule changes before going to conference on a broader ethics bill that includes them.
That willingness to sidestep his leadership on immigration last month, and his ongoing fight with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) over earmarks reforms, has begun to irritate Republican Senate elders, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.).
According to several Republicans, party leaders have made it clear to DeMint that while they may give him some running room over the next few appropriations-laden weeks, they will not tolerate what they see as repeated efforts to hijack the Senate floor and the public spotlight.
DeMint declined to comment directly on any warning leadership may have delivered to him regarding his increasingly high-profile crusades. But he did say it is up to McConnell and other GOP leaders to take up the mantle of reform if they do not want others to do so.
“I have a lot of respect for our leadership, and we work well as a team,” DeMint said. “But there are enough of us who believe this is where we need to go as a party. And we hope our leadership will take us there. But we’ll take up the banner if we need to.”
Publicly, many Senate Republicans applauded DeMint’s courage to take on the normally decorous chamber and for sticking up for conservative principles at a time when the party is struggling to regain its footing. But several Senators and high-level aides also privately noted that DeMint needs to be careful not to go too far, with several saying he runs the risk of being marginalized as he carves out a reputation of a flame-throwing, first-term Senator who casts aside legislating altogether.
“You have to always be careful around here not to overplay your hand,” Lott warned last week.
Although disagreements between the two date back to DeMint’s opposition to a Lott proposal to move train tracks in his state following Hurricane Katrina, the two have had an ugly split in recent weeks over DeMint’s role as Republican Steering Committee chairman. According to GOP aides, Lott yanked his annual $7,500 contribution to the committee’s funding after DeMint aides criticized his efforts to push through the failed immigration reform bill. Lott’s move to pull the funds was first reported in Congressional Quarterly.
“At some point [DeMint is] going to have to learn he can’t always throw missiles,” said one senior Republican aide. “He’s going to have to work on diplomacy. But so far he’s been rewarded for his behavior and has yet to pay a price for it.”