WASHINGTON --- He calls himself Sen. Tea Party.
That almost says it all about Sen. Jim DeMint's role on the nation's political scene in these nervous days of debt limit warfare and pre-election posturing.
But unlike the fractious movement as a whole, DeMint is focused on what he wants: passage -- not just a vote -- of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. Without it, he says, no consideration should be given to raising the nation's borrowing limit -- even if the country runs out of money for paying all its bills after Tuesday.
The larger problem for DeMint is the government's $14.3 trillion debt, the equivalent of $46,580 for every man, woman and child.
"That is the threat, not a debt ceiling, but the debt," the South Carolina Republican told a tea party audience last week at a Capitol Hill rally.
DeMint's preference for conservative principles over compromise -- and his success getting tea partyers nominated over some GOP party favorites in last year's elections -- have vexed Republican leaders. Some in the GOP complained his activities enabled Democrats to keep some vulnerable seats and their majority.
His insistence on a balanced-budget amendment as part of any debt deal was the inspiration for several House Republicans to force Speaker John Boehner to pull his debt-ceiling proposal and amend it to their liking so it could win passage in the House on Friday evening. Within two hours, the Senate rejected it.
DeMint's influence in the GOP has climbed since his 2004 election to the Senate. Earlier this month, moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, of Maine, co-wrote an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal with DeMint, giving her re-election campaign some conservative credibility. Sen. Orrin Hatch, who watched fellow Utah Sen. Robert Bennett fall to a tea party challenge in 2010, is courting the populist movement.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, long an unapologetic defender of spending "earmarks" that DeMint deplores, embraced the earmark ban now in effect.
DeMint says he dislikes politics and will not run for a third term.
He formed a fundraising committee for supporting candidates he considers true conservatives -- and outing those he considers weak-kneed Republicans. His Senate Conservatives Fund ranks his colleagues on their positions.
"I decided my work could no longer be with other senators," he wrote in his new book, The Great American Awakening . "I would have to work with the American people to elect a new class of senators who would help me to stop the spending, debt and the expansion of the federal government."
Jim DeMint: Senator has been in Washington since 1999 but says he dislikes politics and will not run for a third Senate term.