By Alexander Bolton - 05/04/11 10:27 AM EDT
In a sign of the growing power of conservatives within the Senate Republican Conference, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) held a rare meeting with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) on Monday evening.
The topic: an opening on the most powerful committee in the Senate, the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over taxes, trade, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
“It did come up and I expressed an interest — it’s where all the issues I came to work on in Congress are,” DeMint said of the opening on the Finance panel. “I was considered a legislative nerd in the House because I worked on tax reform, Social Security reform, healthcare, Medicare. Those are really the issues I want to work on.”
But DeMint said he told McConnell that he would “respect whatever decision he makes; he’s got to make the best decision for the conference.”
McConnell is expected to decide by the beginning of next week who gets the spot.
DeMint and McConnell were antagonists for much of the 111th Congress, when DeMint pressed his leader to support a moratorium on earmarks and McConnell, a member of the Appropriations Committee, resisted.
McConnell’s consideration of DeMint for the Finance slot is a sign their relationship has improved significantly since Election Day. It also signals that DeMint’s stature within the Senate GOP conference has grown with the emergence of the Tea Party as a national force.
DeMint, a leader in the conservative grassroots movement, defied his leader in the 2010 Kentucky Republican primary by endorsing Sen. Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite, while McConnell backed the establishment’s choice, former Secretary of State Trey Grayson. Paul won.
He was also an early supporter of Tea Party star Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). DeMint has steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to help elect conservative Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) through his leadership political action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund.
Paul, Lee and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) joined DeMint in forming the Senate Tea Party Caucus at the beginning of the year. And most of the chamber’s conservatives attend the Republican Steering Committee lunches DeMint hosts each week.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the relationship between his home-state colleague and McConnell has improved since the beginning of the year.
“He and Sen. McConnell have a good working relationship,” Graham said. “Last cycle was a very contentious election cycle. Jim has been very good for the conference. He’s reached out to people, and he’s been a good team member up here.”
Graham said the relationship has been a “two-way street” and McConnell has responded to DeMint’s concerns about the party.
“People recognize that Jim’s concerns about our party are legitimate and I think Jim understands that we need coalitions to govern up here,” he said.
DeMint said during the last election cycle that he wanted to bring more conservatives to the Senate.
“I’d rather have 30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 60 Arlen Specters,” he said in reference to the longtime centrist member of the Senate Republican Conference, who switched to the Democratic Party in 2009.
Conservatives have more clout in the chamber with the election of Paul, Lee, Johnson, Toomey, Rubio and Moran.
Conservative groups, such as the Club for Growth, which spent about $200,000 to support Lee in his race against former Sen. Bob Bennett in the 2010 Utah Republican primary, are pulling for DeMint.
“We would be very supportive of DeMint being on the committee,” said Andrew Roth, vice president of government affairs at the Club for Growth.
Roth said the resignation of Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and the retirement of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) at the end of next year means “that committee is going to be starving for true fiscal conservatives, and I think only Jim DeMint matches that.”
“With corporate tax reform being a hot topic over the next several months or year, we need him on the committee,” Roth said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the former chairman of the panel, said it would be a good idea to tap DeMint.
“He has a sound tax policy,” Grassley said. “I’m kind of glad when you get good, sound economic people on the committee.”
Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) are also vying for the seat on Finance, according to GOP aides.
DeMint has more seniority than both those lawmakers.
Corker and Johanns are closer to McConnell, but their conservative credentials are not as strong.
The Club for Growth gives DeMint a 100 percent lifetime rating, compared to a 90 percent rating for Johanns and a 78 percent rating for Corker.
The American Conservative Union gives DeMint a 98.7 percent lifetime rating. Corker and Johanns received ratings of 85.5 and 87.5 percent, respectively, from the group.
One GOP source who supports Johanns questioned the relevance of these ratings.
“Is the level of your conservatism a barometer of getting committee assignments?” the source said.
Johanns has expressed his interest in the Finance post and has taken leadership roles on tax policy and entitlement reform by spearheading the fight to repeal the 1099 tax-reporting requirement in the healthcare reform law and circulating a letter with Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) pressing President Obama to tackle entitlement reform.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), another senator thought to be in the running for the Finance seat, has said he is happy with his current committee assignments.
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), whose name was in the mix for one of the two open seats on Finance earlier this year, withdrew his name from consideration last week because he is a member of the Senate Ethics Committee, which investigated Ensign prior to his resignation.