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Senator DeMint Leaving Congress To Head Think Tank


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


I'm Melissa Block. And we begin this hour with an unexpected departure from the Senate. Jim DeMint is calling quits. He's two years into his second term as the junior senator from South Carolina, a conservative Republican and Tea Party icon. He's leaving the Senate to become the next president of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank here in Washington. More now from NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Senator DeMint announced his decision to step down from his job in a press release. I'm leaving the Senate now, he wrote, but I'm not leaving the fight. DeMint did not show up for votes today in the Senate. He spent that time instead explaining his decision to Rush Limbaugh.

SENATOR JIM DEMINT: So I'm leaving the Senate better than I found it and I think I can do a lot to support these conservatives inside the Senate and the House working with the Heritage Foundation all over the country to convince Americans that our policies are the best for them.

WELNA: DeMint's Senate colleagues were stunned by his unexpected decision to leave. Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey is one of DeMint's closest allies.

SENATOR PAT TOOMEY: I am very disappointed. The Senate's going to lose a great, great champion for freedom, a man of extraordinary and rare political courage, a really good and decent human being. So I'm going to miss him terribly.

WELNA: And fellow South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who has often parted ways with DeMint, had nothing but praise for him today in a tribute on the Senate floor.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Whether you agree with Senator DeMint or not, he was doing what he thought was best for South Carolina and the United States. And at the end of the day, that's as good as it gets because if you're doing what you really believe in and you're not worried about being the most popular or people getting mad at you, then you can really do a good job in Washington.

WELNA: Even Harry Reid, the Senate's Democratic Majority Leader, heaped praise on DeMint.

SENATOR HARRY REID: Even though I disagree with so much of what he's done, I appreciate that - I personally believe he does this out a sense of real belief. It's not political posturing for him, as it is for a lot of people.

WELNA: And during his appearance on the Rush Limbaugh Show, DeMint called Reid a good friend of his.

DEMINT: The problem is not Harry Reid. I think the problem is, as conservatives, we have not taken enough control of our message and our ideas and communicated them directly to the American people. That's what we want to do at Heritage is convince the large majority of Americans that conservative ideas will make their lives better.

WELNA: DeMint has frequently clashed with more mainstream Republicans. Judd Gregg, a former GOP senator from New Hampshire, said today that people who want to govern do not subscribe to the views DeMint promoted in the Senate. DeMint, for his part, has said he would rather serve in the minority with a small and ideologically conservative GOP caucus than in the majority with a large group of centrist Republicans.

Dean Clancy is legislative liaison for FreedomWorks, a Tea Party-backed advocacy group with ties to DeMint.

DEAN CLANCY: There is certainly tension between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party grassroots, but if anything, his move to Heritage ensures that freedom-minded Americans have a really effective advocate.

WELNA: And Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at South Carolina's Winthrop University, says moving to Heritage is likely a good career move for DeMint. For one thing, his predecessor at Heritage has been making more than a million dollars a year, about what senators earn in six years, and it's also to join a well-established bastion of conservative thought.

SCOTT HUFFMON: And that'll broaden at least his recognition nationally among that segment of the Republican Party. Whereas in the Senate, he's just sort of one lone voice in the minority party in the Senate and he's not getting as much attention nationally. This will definitely up his recognition nationally and give him a bigger stage.

WELNA: For what many expect will be a likely presidential run in 2016. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.