DeMint started to make trouble. He was elected chairman of the GOP’s Senate Steering Committee, a group of conservatives that was founded by the late North Carolina senator Jesse Helms. DeMint began calling himself a “recovering earmarker,” arguing that the practice corrupted legislators and distracted them from more important business.And he began to use Senate rules to hold up bills he didn’t like. Because of the way the Senate works, one member can have a big impact on the business of the entire chamber if he or she is willing to say no a lot. “The Senate does so much business by unanimous consent, it just takes one senator to say, ‘I object,’ ” says Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie.
DeMint is not known for “being much engaged in the substance and detail of legislative work,” says Norman Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute scholar who studies Congress. “One of the things that frustrates colleagues is when you’re not involved in the painstaking work of crafting legislation, of finding common ground, or of actually fine-tuning ways to make it work—and then you just show up at the last moment to blow it all up.”
Through 2007 and 2008, DeMint’s increasing willingness to broadcast his frustration led to the perception among some Senate insiders that his highest priority wasn’t passing legislation but enhancing his reputation. Republicans began to complain that he was picking fights with the wrong party and refusing to settle for partial victories rather than no victories at all.
In 2008, DeMint angered colleagues by forcing a procedural vote on Bush’s global AIDS treatment-and-prevention program on a Friday evening, well after many senators normally leave town. The bill was popular on both sides of the aisle; DeMint objected to the measure’s cost, among other things. But when time came for the vote, DeMint was nowhere to be found. Roll Call reported at the time that “normally mild-mannered” senator Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat who’d been forced to buy new airline tickets to accommodate the late vote, walked up to Republican senator John Thune of South Dakota in a fury. “Dude, where the hell is DeMint?” she asked. “I’m trying to get my kids to camp.” DeMint had skipped the vote to attend a family wedding.
“There’s a lot of people who have been very, very unhappy with his nitpicking and his obstructionist” approach, says former Republican senator George Voinovich.
DeMint is sometimes compared unfavorably with Republican senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, an ideological ally who has also opposed earmarks and used holds to block what he sees as fiscally imprudent legislation. Coburn has maintained better relationships with his less conservative colleagues and is described by Senate staffers as more of a problem solver—laying out his objections to legislation and working to help pass bills when those objections can be resolved.
But another interpretation of DeMint’s evolution is that he sensed a new way of getting things done—or undone. The tactics he honed in recent years are not about hushed conversations in the cloakroom but about eye-popping quotes in the press and provocative e-mail blasts to his supporters. He says he’s discovered that his colleagues respond to feeling the heat rather than seeing the light.
Next: A painful period in DeMint's life