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Roll Call

DeMint Leads South Carolina Opposition to Debt Bills

Bill Clark/Roll Call
As Congressional leaders searched for votes on debt legislation, the united opposition of South Carolina’s seven Republicans, including Rep. Trey Gowdy (left) and Rep. Tim Scott, complicated efforts.

For at least a few days this week, South Carolina was almost the most influential state in the Union.

As Congressional leaders searched for votes on legislation to raise the debt ceiling, the united opposition of all seven Republicans in South Carolina’s relatively small, eight Member delegation complicated efforts to forge progress on a final agreement. Sen. Jim DeMint is credited with leading the charge and holding this group together in the face of immense pressure from Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and other Republicans urging more flexibility as Monday’s deadline to raise the U.S. borrowing limit approached.

But the steadfastness of South Carolina lawmakers has owed as much to DeMint’s muscle and popularity at home as to raw political factors on the ground in the Palmetto State.

For example, Sen. Lindsey Graham, an occasional dealmaker, might be wary of a GOP primary battle in 2014; House Members might be eying a run for DeMint’s seat — if he retires as expected in 2016 — and they might want to protect their right flank against a primary challenge in 2012, when new district lines take effect. Additionally, the South Carolina GOP platform advocates the policies of the Cut, Cap, and Balance legislation, which is the only debt ceiling bill supported by the delegation.

“DeMint’s the tone-setter for the state’s conservative movement, no doubt about that,” said a Republican operative with ties to the state. “But this is more of a freshman, Tea Party thing where nobody wants to be the weak link.”

South Carolina’s junior Senator, who won a second term last November, has also come to serve as a model for his state’s House delegation — many of whom rode the 2010 wave of tea party support to victory in a state where the conservative movement is particularly strong. Four of South Carolina’s five House Republicans are freshmen, including Reps. Tim Scott, Jeff Duncan, Trey Gowdy and Mick Mulvaney.

All five House GOP lawmakers — including Rep. Joe Wilson — opposed Boehner’s latest offering Friday night.

DeMint urged them to withhold their support for any debt ceiling legislation other than the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act, asserting that the bill will gain political leverage to clear the Democratic-controlled Senate if Congress misses the Aug. 2 deadline to raise the debt ceiling. The House approved CCB bill in mid July. But after falling in the Senate and a promised presidential veto, Boehner altered his bill.

The five South Carolina House Republicans refused to back Boehner’s debt bill prior to it’s second revision, which included adding a stronger balanced budget amendment component and was referred to by some individuals monitoring the House debate as “Cut, Cap, Balance light.” Graham on Friday told National Review that he was “pleased” with Boehner’s bill, but stopped short of endorsing it. DeMint appears to have been central to his colleagues’ unwavering opposition.

“Sen. DeMint is wildly popular in the state, and is certainly an example to the Reps [sic] of how to stand up to immense pressure,” Spartanburg County Chairwoman LaDonna Ryggs told Roll Call Friday. Ryggs is based in “upstate” South Carolina, arguably the state’s most conservative region.

“It is pretty amazing that all seven of them are standing firm,” Ryggs said. “No other state can boast that, although Boehner may not like the choice of my word ‘boast.’ The Republicans around here are expecting them to hang in there. I am sure it is helping the [House] Republicans that both of their Senators are with them.”

DeMint over the past couple of years has become a folk hero to conservative activists nationwide for his willingness to buck GOP leadership on Capitol Hill and for providing financial and other support to tea-party-favored Senate candidates through his Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee.

That popularity is no more evident than in his home state, where conservative activists and rank-and-file Republican voters alike give DeMint high marks, and his ability to influence the positions taken by individual members of the state’s delegation is considerable. DeMint’s political power extends to South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary.

At the Senator’s behest, several top GOP political operatives have loosely formed the “Keep Your Powder Dry Caucus,” and pledged to remain neutral in the presidential primary until at least after Labor Day weekend. That is when the contenders are set to appear in South Carolina at a candidate forum that DeMint spearheaded. DeMint’s aim is to increase the leverage of his endorsement and power of his endorsement, if he delivers one.

“Sen. DeMint is the gold standard for conservative Republicans. When he says ‘jump’, they respond ‘How high?’” a Republican operative based in Columbia, S.C., said. “He is not just the leading conservative voice in South Carolina, but rivals Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck on the national stage.”

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