WASHINGTON — He calls himself Sen. Tea Party.
That almost says it all about Sen. Jim DeMint's role on the nation's political scene in these nervous days of debt limit warfare and pre-election posturing.
But unlike the fractious movement as a whole, DeMint is specific and focused on what change, exactly, he wants: passage — not just a vote — of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. Without it, he says, no consideration should be given to raising the nation's borrowing limit. Even, he says, if the country runs out of money for paying all its bills after Aug. 2.
The larger problem for DeMint is the government's $14.3 trillion debt, the equivalent of $46,580 for every man, woman and child in the U.S.
"That is the threat, not a debt ceiling, but the debt," the South Carolina senator told a tea party audience this week at a Capitol Hill rally.
DeMint's preference for conservative principles over compromise — and his success last year getting tea partyers nominated over some GOP party favorites in last year's elections — have vexed Republican leaders. Some in the GOP complained that while DeMint's activities may have won like-minded conservatives several seats in Congress, they also enabled Democrats to keep some vulnerable seats and maintain their majority.
His insistence on a balanced-budget amendment as part of any debt deal was the inspiration for several House Republicans — some of them also from South Carolina — to force Speaker John Boehner to pull his own debt-ceiling proposal and amend it to their liking so it could win passage in the House Friday evening. Within two hours, the Senate rejected it. Six Republicans joined all of the majority Democrats in doing it.
Earlier in the week, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, the Republicans' presidential nominee in 2008 and one of the party's biggest maverick, disparaged the tea party by name and DeMint implicitly for acting is if a balanced-budget amendment could be passed as part of a debt-ceiling increase under such a tight deadline.
"Maybe some people (who) have only been in this body for six or seven months or so really believe that," said McCain, a balanced-budget amendment supporter himself. "Others know better."
DeMint's support for like-minded candidates in GOP primaries has boosted his influence in the party since his election to the Senate in 2004. Earlier this month, moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine co-authored an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal with DeMint, giving her re-election campaign some conservative credibility in the face of a challenge from the right. Sen. Orrin Hatch, who watched his fellow Utah Sen. Robert Bennett fall to a tea party challenge in 2010, is actively courting the populist movement more than a year out from Election Day.
And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, long an unapologetic defender of the special spending "earmarks" that DeMint deplores, switched and embraced the earmark ban now in effect.
The man behind the revolutionizing is a 59-year-old grandfather who used to play drums in a band called Salt and Pepper but now sticks to the guitar. His mother once ran a school of dance and decorum out of his boyhood home in Greenville, S.C. He has little use, however, for many Washington rituals — backslapping, small talk, Sunday shows or fancy dinners with other political players.
The former marketing executive, educated at the University of Tennessee and Clemson University, has been in Washington since 1999 but says he dislikes politics and will not run for a third Senate term. Washington's titans have not embraced DeMint, either.
In his new book, "The Great American Awakening," DeMint writes of feeling unwelcome for years after his arrival in the Senate, including at a 2009 GOP caucus meeting in which he urged his colleagues to shake up the institution's cherished seniority rules.
More-senior senators got better shots at inserting federal dollars for home state projects into spending bills. DeMint was opposed to earmarks. Many of his GOP colleagues shunned him.
"'You can't change the Senate,'" a colleague told DeMint.
Frustrated, DeMint formed a fundraising committee for supporting candidates he considers true conservatives — and outing those he considers weak-kneed Republicans. His Senate Conservatives Fund ranks his colleagues on their positions. He considers the years of George W. Bush's presidency an embarrassment because, even with a Republican in the White House and the GOP in control of both houses, the government drove up spending and debt.
"I decided my work could no longer be with other senators," DeMint wrote. "I would have to work with the American people to elect a new class of senators who would help me to stop the spending, debt and the expansion of the federal government."
He began building up GOP primary candidates who embraced his view of true conservative values: free trade; opposition to earmarks; a commitment to cut spending. The result was that these tea party (Taxed Enough Already) candidates took out some veterans in the primaries. Sen. Robert Bennett in Utah was defeated in a party convention by now-Sen. Mike Lee; Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, a former governor, was defeated by Christine O'Donnell.
McConnell's preferred candidate for Senate in Kentucky, Trey Grayson, was defeated for the GOP nomination by DeMint's pick, now-Sen. Rand Paul.
Not all of the candidates backed by DeMint won Senate seats. O'Donnell lost to Democrat Chris Coons in Delaware. Underdog tea party candidate Joe Miller upset incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska's Republican primary, but Murkowski came back as an independent candidate and kept her seat in the November general election.
DeMint said he didn't care that some candidates he helped catapult to primary victories lost the general election, or that perhaps, as his Senate colleagues bitterly noted later, that those losses cost Republicans a Senate majority. He says he'd rather be in the minority than an unprincipled majority.
comments on this story
So when the House on Friday passed Boehner's debt limit bill with changes that would require Congress to pass a balanced-budget amendment before the next time Congress has to raise the debt limit, DeMint still voted against it in the Senate. The change also wasn't good enough for four of South Carolina's five Republican House members, who, like DeMint, insisted that Congress first pass the constitutional amendment as a condition for any debt-ceiling increase.
"Principled conservatives may disagree on this matter, and I respect their opinion," DeMint wrote, "But I believe America cannot wait any longer before we get serious about balancing the budget."