WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim DeMint, a conservative kingmaker who spent millions helping tea party favorites get elected to Congress, faced contempt from other Republican senators as he tried to curb appropriators' powers and limit senior members' clout.
In his new book, "The Great American Awakening," DeMint describes himself as an upstart freshman lawmaker on a lonely mission among "sorry rascals" infuriated by his bucking of venerable Senate practices in his bid to cut federal spending and limit colleagues' ability to fund local projects.
In one of many confrontations with GOP peers, Sen. Arlen Specter reacted angrily in May 2009 when DeMint told him in a private chamber off the Senate floor that he would be backing former Rep. Pat Toomey's challenge of Specter in Pennsylvania's Republican primary.
In the closed-rank circles of Washington politics, it's unheard of for a senator — much less a first-term one like DeMint was then — to back a challenger against an incumbent from the same party. But DeMint deemed Toomey a more reliable conservative than Specter.
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"He barely made eye contact, but I continued," DeMint wrote in the book. "'I value your friendship.' He cut me off and said, 'I've heard enough,' then stood up and walked away. I sat there for a few minutes staring at the floor, feeling sick and guilty."
Specter bolted the Republican Party, ran as a Democrat, lost that party’s nomination in a primary to two-term Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak, and then Sestak lost to Toomey — who now belongs to “a team of conservatives,” five new senators indebted to DeMint and helping him rattle cages louder with their hard-line views and tactics.
The encounter with Specter is among many vivid behind-the-scenes GOP clashes DeMint details after President Barack Obama's 2008 election.
The conflicts reveal a widening split within the Republican Party between pragmatic dealmakers trying to help their states and ideological conservatives intent on slashing the federal government even at the expense of needs back home.
DeMint writes in almost messianic terms as he repeatedly casts himself as fulfilling a mission assigned to him by God to "save freedom," prevent bankrupting the future and pull the nation back from a moral abyss.
Describing his book as a story of "the battle for America's soul," DeMint said he was tired of Washington after his first term and came close to not seeking re-election last year, but God persuaded him to stay in the fight.
DeMint's criticism of Obama in the book is relentless as he accuses the president of trying to impose "European-style socialism" on the United States.
Yet, DeMint also charges Obama's Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, with having abandoned conservative tenets.
"During the Bush administration, when Republicans controlled Washington, spending and earmarks exploded," DeMint wrote.
"We expanded federal control of education and health care, increased the national debt exponentially, while making no effort to fix the tax code, save Social Security and Medicare, or reduce the size of the federal government — all Republican platform promises," he wrote. "You could accuse Republicans of a lot of things, but you could never convict us of being too conservative!"
DeMint's ultimately successful effort to ban spending earmarks for what he derided as "parochial interests" made him a hero to conservative activists nationwide and led to his title of Senator Tea Party.
But the bruising, four-year battle encompassed a number of defeats within the Senate Republican caucus that "humiliated" the South Carolinian, often left him dispirited and alienated him from colleagues in a chamber known for its clubby conviviality.
"How did a guy like me, who loved people and was known my whole life for being friendly, get myself in a position where I was making so many enemies?" DeMint asked plaintively.
DeMint says he was crestfallen when conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, whom he admires, other analysts and some GOP leaders blamed him and Sarah Palin for the party's failure to regain the Senate majority by backing O'Donnell and other tea party candidates who had little chance of winning.
Yet DeMint was typically defiant.
"Republicans who think the tea party hurt Republicans in 2010 are completely out of touch," he wrote.
Some of his book's most dramatic moments detail DeMint's clashes with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentuckian who is his ostensible boss as head of the chamber's Republicans.
In November 2008, after Obama's election, GOP senators at a closed-door gathering overwhelmingly defeated DeMint's reform proposals to place term limits on how long they could hold leadership posts or sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
DeMint met with McConnell the next week "to clear the air" and provide assurances he wasn't challenging the Senate Republican leader's authority.
"Jim, you can't change the Senate," McConnell told him.
Two years later, DeMint proved McConnell wrong.
In November 2010, after four years of having rejected DeMint's bid to impose an earmark ban, Senate Republicans abruptly changed course under pressure from tea party activists and their House GOP peers who'd sworn off the local funding requests.
McConnell, long an ardent defender of earmarks, took to the Senate floor to explain his change of heart.
"Unless people like me show the American people that we're willing to follow through on small or even symbolic things, we risk losing them on our broader efforts to cut spending and rein in government," McConnell said.
A triumphant DeMint could scarcely believe his ears.
"I didn't know whether to cheer or cry," he wrote. "Years of work and frustration were suddenly showing results. The Senate that couldn't be changed just moved a few inches in the right direction."
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