By Alexander Bolton - 12/07/12 11:00 AM EST
Senate Republican conservatives say Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) surprise retirement will not leave a void in the upper chamber because their ranks have grown significantly in recent years.
They attribute the rightward shift of the Republican caucus’s ideology in large part to DeMint’s crusading work as chairman of the Senate Republican Steering Committee and founder of the Senate Conservatives Fund.
He was an outspoken fiscal hawk and opponent of government expansion who pushed for repeated votes to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act when leaders of his party were uncommitted to that strategy.
He stunned colleagues Thursday by announcing he would retire at the end of the year, four years before the end of his second term, to take over as president of The Heritage Foundation in January.
In the 112th Congress, however, DeMint pulled back from his controversial floor tactics as proteges he helped elect in 2010 took over floor skirmishes with the Democratic and Republican leaderships.
Colleagues say DeMint has left an indelible mark on the chamber, for better or worse, and say there are plenty of junior lawmakers who are willing to use the guerrilla tactics that DeMint employed frequently in recent years.
“When I first got here there were very few of us that were pretty conservative and now that group is quite a bit bigger. I would say the infant that was here when I got here has become a toddler and maybe more,” said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho). “I feel much better of the size of the group that promotes the conservative message and agenda.”
“I think there will be plenty of members left who will vigorously advance the positions that Jim has been advancing. In fact most of our conference is a pretty conservative conference,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), vice chairman of the Senate Republican conference.
Democratic leaders, who have often expressed anger over DeMint’s floor tactics, do not think the pace of business will pick up after he leaves.
“There are a number of senators on the Republican side who have discovered the Senate rules and the use of the filibuster. Sen. DeMint has, but others have as well so I don’t think there will be any shortage of people using Senate rules to slow down the Senate when they want to,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Two years ago, DeMint declared that he would prefer to serve in the Senate minority with a group of committed conservatives than in the majority with liberal-leaning Republicans.
“I'd rather have 30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 60 Arlen Specters, “ he said, making reference to the late Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), who in 2009 left the Republican Party to become a Democrat.
DeMint dedicated himself to turning his vision of a more conservative Republican caucus into a reality by supporting conservative candidates in Senate primaries. He supported Rubio over former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who was backed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
In Kentucky, DeMint endorsed Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) even though Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) favored his opponent, former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson.
In Wisconsin, DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund helped fund Sen. Ron Johnson’s (R) successful 2010 campaign against former Sen. Russ Feingold (D). It was an instance of a senator taking an unusually active personal role to defeat a colleague.
This election cycle, DeMint supported Sens.-elect Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Ted Cruz, who defeated Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the Texas Republican primary.
Paul, Johnson and other junior senators mentored by DeMint, a founding member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, have taken over the role he used to play on the floor.
Paul angered senior Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) earlier this week by appearing to hold up the Defense authorization bill to force a vote on an amendment affecting the treatment of terrorist detainees. McCain, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, apologized for the delay and said it could give credence to Democratic calls for filibuster reform. A spokeswoman for Paul, however, said McCain was wrong to accuse her boss.
Paul held up all Senate floor business in September to force a vote to end aid to Egypt, Libya and Pakistan, infuriating some senior Republican colleagues.
Johnson brought the Senate to a dead halt in June of last year by filibustering all business to protest the Democrats’ failure to pass a budget resolution.
Paul applauded DeMint’s move to Heritage and said he could help publicize the arguments of Senate conservatives as they wage their floor battles.
"It's a great asset for conservatives up here. He's elected a lot of new Constitutional conservatives. Heritage is a big microphone, you know. For Jim DeMint to be the head of Heritage aids the conservative movement," Paul said.
"One of the great things is we now have a much bigger Liberty Caucus than we did before. And I think a lot of that is due to Jim DeMint," he said.
Senate Republicans said they were surprised by DeMint’s announcement to retire early but understand why he is eager to take over the Heritage Foundation, one of the nation’s leading conservative think tanks.
Ed Feulner, the think tank's outgoing president, earned more than $1 million in compensation in 2010, according to Heritage's tax form for that year. DeMint's annual salary as a senator is $174,000.
DeMint is also not one of the richest members of Congress. On his 2011 financial disclosure report, DeMint only listed two assets, both IRAs, that are worth at least $1,000 each. He also received a book advance for his tome "Now or Never" last year of more than $43,000.
But DeMint reported liabilities for 2011 that totaled at least $350,000 for two residential mortgages. DeMint's minimum net worth was -$348,000 at the end of last year under The Hill's methodology.
One senior Senate Republican aide said a platform at Heritage would let DeMint continue the grassroots advocacy work he was passionate about in the Senate.
“In some ways it makes perfect sense,” said a senior Republican aide. “Some of his best work has come on the grassroots advocacy side. It’s clear where his passion lies. You don’t get a better venue than the Heritage Foundation.”
Kevin Bogardus and Ben Geman contributed to this report.