WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim DeMint, in an unusual assertion of unilateral power, has warned the other 99 senators that for the rest of the legislative session this year, all bills and nominations that are slated for unanimous passage must go through his office for review.
The move by the South Carolina Republican, who has a growing national following among conservative activists, is his most direct challenge yet to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and it has increased speculation that he is gunning for the Kentucky Republican's leadership post.
DeMint has repeatedly denied that he wants to challenge McConnell as Senate Republican leader. However, DeMint has backed numerous conservative outsiders in primaries who have toppled candidates preferred by the Republican establishment.
DeMint defended his action.
"I'm doing the job South Carolinians elected me to do, which is to review each bill carefully before it is passed, not after," DeMint said. "Only in Washington is it a radical idea to read a bill and know how much it costs before we agree to pass it. I'm not going to sit by quietly while big spenders try to secretly ram through bills that increase the debt and expand the size of government."
DeMint's aides said he is not out to block all legislation, and is focused on spending measures.
They noted that DeMint backs a major authorization bill for the U.S. Coast Guard and President Barack Obama's nomination of Gen. Jim Amos to be the Marine Corps commandant, both of which are headed for unanimous passage.
McConnell's aides said Tuesday that they take DeMint at his word.
"It is the right of any senator to object to any bill that he has not seen," said Don Stewart, McConnell's spokesman.
A top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gleefully highlighted DeMint's new power play.
"I wonder what Minority Leader McConnell thinks about self-proclaimed King DeMint's unilateral declaration," said Jim Manley, Reid's chief spokesman.
"One thing I know for sure is if (the Republican) conference continues to follow the lead of the junior senator from South Carolina, they are destined to be in the minority for years to come."
With many Americans angry over increased government spending and the still-stagnant economy, Republicans are widely considered to have a strong chance to regain control of the House of Representatives in November, with an outside shot at winning a Senate majority.
What makes DeMint's move a challenge to McConnell is that under a long-standing bipartisan Senate accord, the majority and minority leaders must agree to every measure or nomination that goes to the chamber for passage by unanimous consent.
DeMint's muscle-flexing raises the stakes because it strikes at the heart of a core Senate process that so far has survived the bitter partisan rancor between Democrats and Republicans.
Under the "hotline" or unanimous consent process, which has been used for years, the Senate majority and minority leaders move ostensibly noncontroversial bills and nominations to quick passage.
DeMint and some other senators think that process has been abused increasingly, with important measures such as spending bills hotlined to avoid politically difficult roll call votes.
Senators are supposed to be notified in advance of all bills or nominations to be moved via unanimous consent, with an objection from even one senator enough to stop an item.
Wesley Denton, DeMint's spokesman, said Senate leadership aides often leave phone messages about such bills late in the day, after staffers have gone home, then presume that non-responses to the messages constitute agreement.
Sens. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, and Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, are crafting legislation to update the hotline process by requiring that all measures be posted online at least 72 hours before Senate votes, whether unanimous or roll call.
Denton said DeMint supports the McCaskill-Coburn reform bill, and that DeMint would be satisfied with 48 hours' notice of measures headed for votes.