Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has a reputation as a conservative bomb-thrower, but observers expect him to adopt a conciliatory approach when he ascends to ranking Republican on a powerful committee next year.
The new post on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will give DeMint, a Tea Party favorite, an opportunity to hone his expertise on policy issues and boost his reputation — possibly laying the groundwork for a future presidential run or a bid for a Senate leadership position.
When DeMint was elected to the Senate in 2004, Rockefeller was assigned as his Democratic mentor, helping him to learn the ropes of the upper chamber.
DeMint said he continues to have a good relationship with the senior Democrat.
"We may not agree philosophically on a lot of things, but there are a lot of things in the telecommunications industry that I want to work with him on," DeMint said. "There's a lot of common ground."
DeMint said there is bipartisan agreement that the government should not try to regulate or control the Internet.
"I think a lot of the Democrats know that this is one area of the economy that is growing, that is working well," he said.
The Republican senator said he expects to work with Rockefeller on aviation and transportation safety issues. DeMint also expressed frustration with a lack of transparency on telephone bills, but said the Senate should facilitate voluntary, private-sector solutions, rather than try to mandate consumer protection standards.
One industry lobbyist expects DeMint will "jump-start the enthusiasm" of the minority members of the committee.
"No offense to [Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas)], but she was very passive as a ranking member. She rarely pushed Chairman Rockefeller on issues," the lobbyist said. "DeMint has more energy."
But the lobbyist predicted that the relationship between DeMint and Rockefeller would be "cordial and respectful."
"I don't think you'll see Ranking Member DeMint throwing bombs like ... he was known for earlier in his career," the lobbyist said.
DeMint has earned a reputation as someone who works to pull Republicans to the right, and has crossed swords with party leaders in recent years by endorsing insurgent candidates in primaries.
His influence is magnified by the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee he founded that has spent millions of dollars electing conservatives to Congress.
But while DeMint’s rabble-rousing ways are well known, he’s yet to make much of an imprint on policy. That could change now that he’s poised to become the ranking member on Commerce, a powerful panel with wide jurisdiction.
Gigi Sohn, president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, agreed that DeMint and Rockefeller are likely to have a constructive relationship.
"His staff has been really open to talking to us," she said. "Not all of these issues are ideological."
Earlier this year, DeMint introduced the Next Generation Television Marketplace Act, which would scrap many of the existing regulations of the video marketplace.
“What we now have is a complex web of outdated regulations that must be addressed comprehensively and cannot be dealt with individually, in isolation from one another," DeMint said in a statement when he introduced the bill.
Sohn praised the legislation, saying it would clear out the "regulatory underbrush" that is designed more to benefit local television broadcasters than consumers. She said the sports blackout rule in particular is "ridiculous."
She said the bill goes too far by eliminating media ownership rules that promote diversity, but she said she hopes the Democrats will work with DeMint to move the bill forward.