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Outside The Senate, DeMint Appears More Powerful Than Ever

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Congress has been getting most of the attention during this latest round of budget brinksmanship. But some of the biggest players in the debate have been outside conservative groups with close ties to Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Perhaps the most influential voice is also a soft-spoken one. It belongs to former South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, who now heads the Heritage Foundation.

Earlier this month in New York City's Times Square, between Madame Tussauds wax museum and Modell's sporting goods, a five-story-tall sign went up. "Warning," it read, "Obamacare may be hazardous to your health."

Meanwhile, a new ad came out, claiming the "most vulnerable in our population will be forced to leave their physicians to go — we're not sure into what plan."

Other ads targeting Republican senators over Obamacare funding also popped up across the country.

All these ads are products of groups once or currently headed by DeMint. Before he quit his job as a senator early this year to head the Heritage Foundation — which produced the Times Square billboard and the TV ad on the perils of Obamacare — DeMint founded the Senate Conservatives Fund, the political action committee behind the ads going after Republican senators.

Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, says DeMint has to be taken seriously.

"His new role with the Heritage Foundation, or whatever it's called, and the money that he's been able to generate there has created a political force," the Illinois senator says.

'Not Blowing In The Wind'

At his office at Heritage looking out toward the Capitol, DeMint appears a man in full as he sits down for an interview.

"There's no question in my mind that I have more influence now on public policy than I did as an individual senator," he says.

DeMint says he does not miss his 14 years in Congress. His aim now, he says, is to make Heritage the most influential public policy organization in the country.

"We are, in many cases, the leader of the conservative movement," DeMint says. "A lot of these other groups look to us for the principles and the policy, and they know after 40 years, that Heritage is not blowing in the wind as far as what we believe — that we're going to put the stake in the ground where it should be."

'Subverting The Organization'

But former Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards — who was one of the Heritage Foundation's three trustees when it was founded in 1973 — calls DeMint's tenure "an abysmal, abysmal kind of attempt at leadership."

"He's basically subverting the organization that he's supposed to be leading," Edwards says.

For many years, Edwards says, Heritage was respected as an academic, intellectual think tank. He fears that DeMint is shredding that legacy.

"I think that what DeMint's doing is going to undermine the credibility of the Heritage Foundation, because people will see it as just another advocacy or lobbying group for, you know, the far right," Edwards says.

Rocking The Boat

In August, DeMint joined the head of Heritage's lobbying arm for a nine-city swing labeled the Defund Obamacare Town Hall Tour. He told a crowd in Fayetteville, Ark., that he worried more about Obamacare than about Republicans' risk of losing the next election if there's a government shutdown.

"I'm not ... as interested in the political futures of folks who think they might lose a showdown with the president," he said. "What we need is some people to stand up with the courage of their convictions — to do what they promised when they ran for election and fight to stop Obamacare."

DeMint's tweaking of those he regards as wayward Republicans has rankled many in the party.

Brian Walsh, a GOP political consultant and a former spokesman for the Senate Republicans' re-election team, says it's fair to question "the real motives" behind these outside groups.

"It certainly doesn't appear to be about winning elections or effecting change, it appears to be about raising money and enhancing their own power and profile among the Republican grass roots," Walsh says.

But DeMint remains unfazed.

"I had a lot of critics in the Senate," he says. "Frankly, if you're not getting criticized in Washington, you're probably part of the problem."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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