Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) tried his best at every turn to prevent a debt-ceiling deal. Whether he intended to win (and actually force the country into default) or simply bolster his own reputation with the most aggrieved element of the Tea Party is unknowable. But he certainly gave it his all.
For starters, he championed the balanced-budget amendment, not only demanding a vote but passage from both houses of Congress. Surely he knew that the number of Democratic votes required made the demand impossible to meet. (In the Senate, it would have taken 60 votes to get cloture on the amendment and two-third of the votes to send it to the states. The Republicans have 47 votes.) In essence, he created a bar so high that he and his followers could vote no on every iteration of a debt-ceiling bill, no matter how favorable to conservatives.
Not satisfied with mischief-making in his own body, he then went all out to stop House passage of the debt-ceiling deal. Last week, he cajoled the House’s South Carolina delegation to resist all entreaties to back their speaker. And it worked; they refused all efforts to win their votes, even when Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) amended his own bill to include a balanced-budget proposal.
Ultimately, none of DeMint’s antics paid off. He’ll vote no today, but the debt-ceiling bill will pass with only a token nod to his balanced-budget-amendment demand. (Passage of the amendment, in the event the committee does not reach agreement and obtain passage of the second round of mandated spending cuts, theoretically would prevent the across-the-board spending cuts.)
And yesterday, he was forced to back down from his threats to back challengers to colleagues who voted yes on the deal. Politico reported:
“I respect how any of those folks vote, I obviously disagree. This is not a good deal for America,” DeMint told POLITICO Monday evening. “I respect how any of my colleagues vote on this.”
After using his tea party clout in 2010 to push conservative candidates deemed by the GOP establishment as too weak, DeMint told his colleagues that he won’t go after them in their own races this cycle.
But as the debt-ceiling debate raged on, DeMint suggested in a number of interviews that he could change his policies and target 2012 Senate Republicans if they back what he considers a bad deal.
“No,” DeMint said Monday when asked if he’d target his colleagues if they support the compromise deal.
The bark proved far worse than the bite.
DeMint’s gambit, if actually intended to shape the legislative outcome, ultimately weakened his hand and that of like-minded obstructionists in the Senate. In the Senate, the bill the final bill had to be shaped to accommodate Democrats.
There is a good argument that without DeMint’s theatrics Republicans would not have been compelled to include significant cuts in defense. Had, for example, DeMint not helped wreck the original Boehner debt-ceiling bill, it may have passed the House on Friday with no balanced-amendment poison pill. Then in the Senate, that bill, if backed by all 47 Republicans, could very well have carried the day, putting pressure on nervous red-state Democrats. In that scenario, there may very well have been no “trigger” (hence no across the board cuts including defense) in the second round. Multiple House Republicans have expressed to me that they were very confident that if the original Boehner bill had come out of the House last week without significant opposition (much ginned up by DeMint), it,as one put it, “would be law right now.”
At the very least, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would have had an entirely credible plan to work from going in to negotiate with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Instead, McConnell had an obviously unacceptable plan from the House and fewer than 35 Republican votes to work with. No wonder he and the House eventually had to “give” Democrats distasteful defense cuts. A House Republican tells me that despite all that, “Boehner and McConnell pulled a rabbit out of the hat on the final agreement, which should give appropriators sufficient flexibility to protect troop & readiness funding while cutting elsewhere, like foreign aid, state department, homeland security, etc. It’s a much better place than the Reid bill, which took a hatchet to defense directly.” But it could have been better than that.
The result of all of this may be to make DeMint even more popular with the most extreme elements of the Tea Party (note that “59 GOP frosh voted yes, 28 voted no. More than half of the House ‘Tea Party Caucus’ voted ‘aye.’ ”) but much less influential in the Senate. The House and Senate leadership learned to maneuver around him. His colleagues witnessed his contrived excuses for opposing a debt-ceiling bill. In the end, DeMint was as influential as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.); that is, if influential at all, only in bolstering the Democrats’ resolve.