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December 11, 2012

STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Outside pressure continues to grow on the inside workings of legislature

INDIANAPOLIS — The surprise resignation of ultra-conservative U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint was seen by some as an indicator of the weakening power of the tea party movement that helped put an end to the career of the nation’s most senior U.S. senator, Richard Lugar.

But Lugar doesn’t see it that way.

Last week, at his annual public-policy symposium for high school students, the Indiana Republican said DeMint’s decision to abandon his post to head the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation is an indicator of the growing influence of outside pressure groups on the inside workings of the legislative branch.

DeMint, said Lugar, can wield a big stick as the head of an organization that can muster millions of campaign dollars for candidates who support the ultra-conservative causes that DeMint champions.

A self-proclaimed warrior in the “battle of ideas,” DeMint, the founder of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, has been an uncompromising foe of compromise.

He opposes immigration reforms that would create a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., and he’s wanted no ground yielded to President Barack Obama as we speed toward the fiscal cliff.

The 80-year-old Lugar was vilified during his losing primary race for embracing both immigration reform and the virtues of compromise on budget and other issues.

Lugar said DeMint envisions himself as the next Grover Norquist. As head of the influential Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist has pressured scores of legislators into taking a pledge to never, ever raise taxes under any circumstances.

Norquist, said Lugar, uses his organization to mobilize forces against anyone who even thinks about defying the pledge.

“Grover is able to call into play tens of millions of dollars to crucify anybody that crosses the line,” Lugar said. “So, in essence, Jim DeMint is saying: ‘Now I’m going to play that game.’ ”

It’s a game Lugar thinks will end badly.

He blames on Norquist and like-minded no-compromisers Washington’s inability to act to avert the double-whammy of tax hikes and spending cuts that will come next month unless there’s some compromise in Congress.

It’s a crisis Lugar is convinced could have been averted long before now by practicing some simple virtues: listening and talking to other side long enough to find common ground.

In the same week that DeMint announced his departure from the Senate, Lugar announced how he’ll be spending some his time after he leaves office: teaching the next generation of leaders the art of compromise.

He’s joining the University of Indianapolis as a distinguished professor of political science and foreign affairs. And he’ll be expanding the university’s current Lugar Center for Tomorrow’s Leaders into the Richard G. Lugar Academy, which will continue to focus on training young people interested in the big ideas for which Lugar is best known, including the disarmament of nuclear and chemical weapons.

At last week’s symposium, where the tea party and the fiscal cliff were just two of the many matters that Lugar covered with his high school audience, there was a young man from Goshen High School in the audience who listened to Lugar’s talk with rapt attention.

He told me he was “sad, so sad,” that he’ll never get a chance to vote for Lugar. “He’s one of my heroes,” said 16-year-old Noah Shremer. “I have a ton of respect for this man.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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