The new leaders of conservative Republican factions in the House and Senate say they plan to work together more closely in the new Congress to reshape their party.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who last month took over as chairman of the conservative Senate Republican Steering Committee, and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), who will head its House counterpart, the Republican Study Committee (RSC), have discussed several changes to help them wrench their party back onto the track they want.
One of their most ambitious proposals is to participate in regular joint meetings of the Senate and House Republican leadership to plot party direction. They would also like to share resources, and see Senate conservatives represented at the meetings of House conservatives and vice versa.
Their goal is to return the GOP to its original principles, they say. They believe Democrats won a landslide at the polls last year because the GOP had drifted from its ideological moorings. Democrats took advantage by speaking on the stump in more conservative tones, they add.
DeMint and Hensarling also believe that a lack of coordination between the Senate and House, which sometimes degenerated into outright feuding, damaged the party’s political viability.
“There’s not nearly enough cooperation between the House and Senate,” said DeMint in an interview. “I think that’s one of the things that weakened our message as a party. Seldom were we debating the same thing on the same week. There was no coherent Republican position.”
DeMint said that unlike some Republicans on the Hill, he does not think the public views the House and Senate as distinct entities.
“I think more people probably see us as Republicans in Congress, together,” he said, referring to past finger-pointing between House and Senate Republicans. “When we try to say that we’re doing the right thing and they’re not, that doesn’t really help us.”
One such blowup was shortly before the 2005 August recess when then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) made headlines by announcing his support for stem-cell research just as House Republicans were attempting to tout the passage of several significant pieces of legislation that, as a result, were overshadowed.
DeMint and Hensarling may be ideally suited for strengthening Senate and House ties. DeMint served three House terms between 1999 and 2005. Hensarling worked for former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) in the late 1980s and served as executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 1992.
“I was an old Senate guy before I was a House guy,” he said.
In recent years, as the power of the RSC has grown, it has become more influential with the House Republican leadership. But Hensarling and his conservative allies recognize that greater coordination with the Senate is needed to protect their standing.
Made up of the most conservative members of the new minority party, the RSC could find itself much less powerful than in the 109th Congress. Last year, a defection by 20 or so conservatives could have derailed legislation, but next year the crucial swing votes will be cast by centrist Republicans and Democrats.
By working together with Senate conservatives, who enjoy the leverage of being able to filibuster legislation with 41 votes, House conservatives can still aspire to be a force in Congress.
“Being in the minority, resources are going to be more scarce, so it makes a lot of sense for us to share tactics, strategy and staff,” said Hensarling. “The lines of communication need to be more open than they’ve been in the past. If you look at the history of the two organizations in their early stages, there is precedent for cooperation.”
While many political observers expect Republican conservatives to play primarily a defensive and obstructionist role in the new Congress, DeMint and Hensarling envision themselves playing constructive roles.
“We want to expand the role from one that is just holding bills back and delaying things to casting a clear vision for what the Republican Party stands for, what our vision is,” said DeMint, hearkening back to his former career as a marketing executive. “So my hope is to work with Jeb Hensarling and the Republican Study Committee and the whole Republican Conference on reshaping our vision to one that inspires the American people.”
DeMint noted that many Democrats won elections in conservative-leaning states and districts by voicing conservative themes such as the importance of fiscal discipline. He believes there is common ground with Democrats. Democrats have promised several reforms that conservatives like, such as reforming earmarks, balancing the budget, and implementing pay-as-you go spending rules.
Both DeMint and Hensarling said that reforming the congressional spending process, which has seen an explosion of pet projects and earmarked funds, is a top priority.
DeMint and fellow Steering Committee members took a stand against an earmark-laden omnibus spending bill leaders considered late last year. They galvanized opposition to the measure at a meeting of the Senate Republican Conference held after the election by warning that earmarks could spell the demise of their party.
“I said at that meeting that I do not want the tombstone of the Republican Party to say ‘10,000 earmarks,’” said DeMint. “I think a lot of people listened to that. We knew when we were going through [the debate] that a good bit more than half the conference supported it [although] some whispered their support because they didn’t want to offend appropriators.”