WASHINGTON Jim DeMint helped make Marco Rubio a Senate star – and he could be forgiven for regretting it.
DeMint, a former Republican senator from South Carolina, endorsed Rubio early on in his 2010 Senate bid, when he was still a long-shot Tea Party candidate, and Rubio has said that DeMint is his best friend, after his wife.
And yet, perhaps for the first time, the two men now find themselves at odds on a major issue. In 2007, DeMint was instrumental in helping to kill legislation to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, and now, six years later, Rubio, R-Fla., is a pivotal member of a bipartisan Senate group that has written a bill that would do just what DeMint was fighting to prevent.
As Rubio’s immigration push meets vocal and persistent opposition, it will be DeMint, newly ensconced as the president of the Heritage Foundation, among those leading the charge. The foundation plans to issue an updated version of its 2007 economic study that helped doom the overhaul.
And DeMint has taken to the Internet, national newspapers and conservative talk radio to push against the legislation of his former protege.
“I certainly wish he was on my side,” Rubio said. “But he’s a very principled man and he truly believes this is the wrong approach and I respect that.”
During his time in the Senate, DeMint, 61, earned a reputation as something of a smiling assassin – a mild-mannered legislator with a soft Southern drawl who could be a near-constant irritant to those not in line with his conservative causes and principles. Now, he has begun gearing up for the next fight.
Before the legislation was even unveiled, at a session with bloggers, DeMint – whose new nongovernment salary, if it mirrors his predecessor’s, is likely to be more than $1 million – warned that the bill was being “developed behind closed doors, in secret.”
“We’ve seen this movie before,” he said. “We know how this game plays out.”
Though DeMint says he supports legal immigration, he prefers a piecemeal approach to fixing the system and views any path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally as amnesty, forgiveness for breaking the law.
His main argument is an economic one – a belief that unauthorized immigrants, who he said would ultimately take out more in federal benefits than they would pay in taxes, would be a drain on the economy. (Under the legislation proposed in the Senate, it would be at least 13 years before an illegal immigrant would quality for any federal benefits.)
In its 2007 study, the Heritage Foundation estimated that an immigration overhaul could cost taxpayers roughly $2.5 trillion, and that staggering sum is credited with helping provide a rationale to kill the legislation. Though Republican politicians and other groups have since criticized the research as flawed, the Heritage Foundation plans to release a new version of the study soon.
DeMint, who in the Senate was willing to oppose his fellow Republicans, has already proved himself formidable in his new role, as his organization helped the Republican opposition to a background check compromise on gun legislation that was ultimately defeated.
“What Jim DeMint has done is a wonderful thing,” said Larry Pratt, the executive director of Gun Owners of America. “He has shown that the best way to make change in Washington is from the outside.”
And when it comes to immigration, his word, especially in conservative circles, is still highly influential.
“We care what Sen. DeMint’s perspective on an issue is because we have a relationship with him, and he remains much more popular in my district than I am,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., referring to the state’s delegation. “I’d be crazy not to.”
Immigration watchers are curious about how the relationship between DeMint and Rubio will affect the debate. “He was an early backer of Rubio and Rubio owes him a lot,” said Keith Appell, a Republican political consultant.
“If DeMint wins, Rubio loses,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration group. “The Republicans’ best chance going forward is to have Marco Rubio win this day, and if Jim DeMint cuts him off at the knees, he’s going to hurt Republican chances of regaining the White House.”
Others see their relationship as that of a young, charismatic son (Rubio) eclipsing his more experienced father (DeMint).
“It’s almost like a Greek story, where the offspring is now leading the very thing his father made his bones over,” said a Senate Republican aide, speaking anonymously in order to offer a candid assessment. “The leader who killed the 2007 bill – that was his one accomplishment. And now his protege is picking up the baton in the exact opposite direction.”
Because of a Senate ethics rule, DeMint is all but banned from discussing policy with Rubio for two years. But that hasn’t stopped the Heritage Foundation and its policy advocacy arm, Heritage Action, from doing all it can to influence the immigration debate.
The organization hosts various briefings and conversations, and is considered, in the words of Appell, “one of the cornerstones of intellectual force in the conservative movement.” DeMint himself has written an op-ed article in which he derided the bill as “legislated amnesty” that would harm U.S. taxpayers. He has also penned blog posts and appeared on talk radio.
Rubio and his office are keeping a close eye on where DeMint and the Heritage Foundation stand.
Though loath to take on DeMint himself, Rubio and his staff are already pushing back on his economic argument, saying that the public benefits of an immigration overhaul would outweigh any concerns about cost. Rubio said that most immigrants, “once they become legalized and improve their lives, they’ll be better. In essence, they’ll pay more in taxes because they’ll be making more.”
“So basically, if you’re going to come to this country, you’re going to wait 13 years to even have a chance to apply for citizenship,” he added, “have no federal benefits in the meantime, have to pay taxes, a fine, undergo background checks twice, all those sorts of things, in exchange for being able to take advantage of welfare programs 13 years from now, 14 years from now?” The answer, he implied, was no.
Friends of DeMint said that contrary to his public image, he rarely wages personal attacks and can disagree while still being cordial.
“The way he usually ends his conversations with me is, ‘Reasonable minds can differ’ or ‘You need to do what you think is best,“’ Gowdy said. “I imagine he ends his conversations with Sen. Rubio precisely the same way.”
But the 2007 immigration debate quickly became heated, and at times nasty. Legislators yelled at one another on the Senate floor. At one point, a Drudge Report link to a news release from DeMint’s office, calling the bill “amnesty,” crashed the congressional servers because it was so widely read.
For now, however, both DeMint and Rubio said they did not expect their differing approaches on immigration to strain their friendship.
“Good friends can have honest disagreements, but I know we’re working towards the same goal – a lawful immigration system that works for America – with differing solutions of how we get there,” said DeMint, in response to questions over email.
And, from Rubio: “We have some disagreements on the best way forward on immigration. But it’s never going to change how I feel about Jim DeMint, and hopefully it doesn’t change how he feels about me.”
He paused, then added a bit more confidently: “I know it doesn’t.”
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