Politico: Chairman Jim DeMint?
| July 8, 2012
By: Manu Raju and Burgess Everett
South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint is in line to become the Senate's first tea party committee chairman, a position certain to squeeze him between his brand of unyielding politics and the pressure to compromise in a narrowly divided Congress.
If Republicans win the Senate, DeMint would grab the gavel of the powerful Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, giving him oversight over everything from highway funding, to NASA, to Internet regulation. It's a position with the power to shape the national agenda over a wide swath of the economy, and DeMint emphatically says he'll be just as uncompromising with a gavel in his hand as he has been in his seven years as a bomb-throwing backbencher.
Some of his colleagues say thats a recipe for a gridlocked committee.
"I think he has a decision to make, what he wants his role to be. Does he want to have an impact on legislation that can pass? Or is he going to stop the legislation from ever being good enough to pass?" said outgoing Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the committees top Republican, in an interview. "If he wants to continue to be the strong voice for not passing legislation that has compromise in it, perhaps he would bypass being the chairman and continue to have that warrior role, but not a governing role."
DeMint was unmoved and seems more willing to remain a soldier in the conservative movement — and use the committee to push his agenda, eliminating federal programs and regulations and blocking major highway bills he considers bad for the country.
"I say we cant solve the problems we got with the same people who created it," DeMint said in an interview in his Senate office. "The warrior role is going to be the governing role in the sense we are fighting a status quo that is close to destroying our country."
DeMint defines compromise using rhetoric that is sure to please the tea party wing of his party: Compromise is when Democrats and moderate Republicans move toward your position. Or, as DeMint put it, his side is the one consisting of "reasonableness, its the side of what works, its the side of what we can afford."
"I think it's important for him to know that I'm not interested in compromising just to pass something," DeMint said of Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), with whom DeMint will share committee leadership.
The back-and-forth is emblematic of the lingering GOP divide between the fierce conservative wing of the party and deal-making types over how to resolve some of the countrys most pressing challenges — namely, how to slash the deficit. And even if the GOP sweeps the November elections, DeMint's comments underscore the hurdles a President Mitt Romney or a Republican-controlled Congress would face to placate unflinching conservatives while compromising with Democrats.
Since joining the Senate, DeMint has made his mark as a critic of Washington Republicans who stray from conservative orthodoxy, endearing himself to the base but hurting his standing among his colleagues. A further wrinkle: DeMint has said he will not run for reelection in 2016, which eliminates the need for him to go back home to South Carolina and tout any legislative accomplishments on the committee.
DeMint's world view from the Senate can be traced to his rhetoric in the 2010 election cycle, when he endorsed more pure conservatives against party establishment types, saying that a Senate of 30 rock-ribbed conservatives was better than a more ideologically diverse group of 60 Republicans. In the 2012 cycle, he is turning his political action committee into a super PAC, allowing big donors to write unlimited contributions in an effort to get more senators in the DeMint mold elected.
But even as he's succeeded in making his mark in some GOP primaries, he's had little success in legislating since taking his Senate seat in 2005. Of the six other Republicans from his freshman class, DeMint has authored the fewest number of laws. Just one out of 146 bills introduced he sponsored has been enacted: The naming of the Carroll A. Campbell federal courthouse in Greenville, S.C.
DeMint says the numbers don't accurately reflect his role in the Senate, saying he's moved to stop what he considers bad legislation and helped to shape the final contents of bills in ways unaccounted by official scorekeepers. In any event, he says, he's not too worried about getting credit for legislation, handing a reporter a plaque bearing a Ronald Reagan quotation alluding to just that.
"It's never been my part to get a bill passed with my name on it," DeMint said. "We've probably had as much impact on legislation as anyone else."
Some Democrats — like Rockefeller, who forged a friendship with DeMint after being named as his Democratic "mentor" when he entered the Senate in 2005 — seem to think DeMint will still evolve if he takes the chairmanship — or even the ranking Republican title if the GOP doesn't win the Senate.
"When you get into a position of responsibility, life gets a little bit more focused, complicated," said Rockefeller, who has already had several conversations with DeMint in preparation for the next Congress.
But other Democrats are far more fearful of DeMint, like liberal Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, whose reaction was "God forbid" when asked about the prospects of a DeMint chairmanship.
"It's one thing to be in the opposition when the stick you're carrying is not so big," Lautenberg told POLITICO. "It's another thing when you get to be ranking member. That's an important post."
In the interview, DeMint said if he were chairman, he would seek to dramatically shrink the size of the Commerce Department, limit programs he considers duplicative over highway safety and resist Internet regulations. He sees ample room for bipartisanship over efforts to transition into the digital era of communications, and he thinks Democrats will see him as someone with whom they can work, as he's done on issues in the past like clamping down on earmarks.
But over some issues in which there's traditionally been bipartisanship, DeMint seems less likely to go along. He was a vocal critic of the recently enacted transportation law, even though leaders from both parties hailed the sweeping overhaul as a model of bipartisanship and compromise.
"The status quo here is every year, just reauthorize and add," DeMint said. "It's just completely irrational."
DeMint isn't hesitant to push proposals that have little chance of passing. In March, he got a vote on an amendment to the Senates transportation bill that would have phased out much of the federal gas tax. Last month, DeMint offered an amendment to the farm bill that would have eliminated broadband Internet grants to rural communities. DeMint threatened to hold Hutchison's bus and truck safety bill, which she has been pushing for years, and the South Carolinian also offered an amendment that would have shaved $50 million off the safety bill during a committee vote.
DeMint finds himself with the opportunity to assume a senior role on the committee because both Hutchison and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) are retiring. The other potential Republican Commerce chairman is Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), but he said the job is DeMint's if he wants it.
"You've got obviously a responsibility to try and legislate and do good things with that position and I'm sure he will," Thune said, predicting DeMint would be effective as chairman.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former chairman of the committee, said the power of wielding the gavel on a panel touching virtually all pieces of the economy cannot be overstated.
"The Commerce Committee, I'm telling you, is like being a mosquito in a nudist colony," McCain said. "You pick the issue you want and go after it. That's commerce. Hell, what's not commerce?"
Kay Bailey Hutchison Jim DeMint Olympia Snowe Frank Lautenberg John Thune