Player of the Week: Jim DeMint
The most oft-used cliche about the Senate is that it's the "World's Greatest Deliberative Body." Leaving aside the question about whether it really is great, the chamber certainly is deliberative, and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has busied himself in recent days making it even more so.
DeMint was a key obstacle to passage of the housing rescue package that finally passed late last week, with DeMint saying:
"Like a fish in the sun, the stink from this bill gets worse every day." He is vowing to make trouble again when the measure comes back to the Senate with a bailout for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac tacked on. "Congress should not use this 'crisis' to rush the government into the mortgage business," DeMint said earlier this week. And he is arguing that any such bailout bill should include a prohibition on lobbying by the two mortgage giants.
DeMint was also the primary reason why it took so long to get global AIDS relief passed by the chamber. While the measure finally did get through this week, DeMint said he was disappointed that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid "decided to ram this $50 billion in deficit spending for foreign aid through the Senate without a full and open debate." Two weeks ago, DeMint held up a Federal Aviation Administration authorization bill because he objected to a provision injecting $6 billion into the highway trust fund. The bill ended up passing after the offending provision was taken out. And DeMint has played a key role in holding up a host of other measures this Congress, including immigration and lobbying reform bills.
But his act may be wearing a bit thin. Roll Call had a story Tuesday (sub req'd) quoting a cavalcade of Senators, mostly Republicans, complaining about DeMint's tactics. Specifically, they were upset that the South Carolinian forced a procedural vote on the AIDS package and then didn't show up for the tally when it happened last Friday. DeMint blamed Reid for scheduling the measure when he knew DeMint would be out of town, but few of DeMint's colleagues seemed sympathetic.
"The fact that he wasn't here for that vote on Friday really hurt him with his colleagues," Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) told the paper. "It was inappropriate for him to do what he did unless he's there to vote on it."
DeMint even took some time to make a bit of presidential campaign mischief this week. The South Carolinian is the top Repubican on the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, which Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) chairs. In advance of the Democratic nominee's trip to Europe and the Middle East, DeMint wrote to Obama requesting that the subcommittee hold hearings on NATO operations in Afghanistan, pointing out that the panel has not held any such hearings in recent years. Foreign Relations Chairman Joe Biden (D-Del.) wrote back to DeMint, pointing out that Afghanistan issues are typically handled at the full committee, not subcommittee, level.
Of course, DeMint is used to irritating people. The Senate may be a generally collegial body, but it also has rules that allow any one senator to wreak havoc on the agenda and block just about any bill. DeMint and fellow conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) have not been shy about utilizing those rules to halt action on scores of bills since both were elected to the Senate in 2004.
There is a distinct school of thought within the Republican Party that the reason the GOP did so poorly in the 2006 elections, and appears headed for another beating in 2008, is that the party stopped adhering to its core conservative principles: It spent too much money, gobbled up too many earmarks and didn't cut taxes enough, and so the base voters stayed home or even voted for some Democrats. Another wing of the party argues that Republicans are in dire straits because they haven't done enough to appeal to the middle, and that they need to reach out to centrists and disaffected Democrats to return to power.
DeMint is firmly in, and a hero of, the first camp. He is perfectly willing to be accused of blocking even popular bills (like the housing and AIDS measures) if he believes he can extract concessions that will spend less money or minimize government interference in the market. DeMint toed the same line during his six years in the House, where he was similarly outspoken on behalf of conservative and reformist causes but was much less effective because that chamber's rules don't allow one member to muck up the works.
Republican voters are unhappy with their party's congressional caucuses right now. Do they want more Jim DeMints, and more aggressive stands to trim government spending? Or do they want less obstruction, and more centrist solutions on issues like energy and housing? To DeMint, the answer to that question is pretty clear, even if it may not be to some of his fellow senators.
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