South Carolina’s Conservative Bloc Poses a Problem for House GOP Leaders

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When Republicans showed up to their pivotal powwow in the Capitol basement on Friday morning, it was no surprise to see the freshmen of the South Carolina delegation arrive together. Of the five GOP members from the Palmetto State, four — Jeff Duncan, Trey Gowdy, Mick Mulvaney and Tim Scott — are rookie representatives. Since coming to Washington, they have built up a tight bond first formed back home, relying on each other for support and guidance as they try to withstand Washington’s pressures¬† and stem the nation’s fiscal bleeding. Duncan and Scott even share an apartment.

Along with six-term Rep. Joe Wilson, the House delegation meets regularly to discuss pending legislation, including the continuing resolution to keep the government’s lights on last spring and a bill sponsored by Scott that would strip the National Labor Relation Board’s ability to block the aviation giant Boeing from building a new facility in the state. After bouncing ideas off each other, the stalwart conservatives often act in concert. “It’s a very unique approach, but it seems to be working out really well,” says a GOP aide.

Not so much for House Speaker John Boehner and his embattled whip team. This tight-knit bloc emerged yesterday as a major hurdle to Boehner’s debt-ceiling bill, with all five Republicans from the Palmetto State holding out against the bill despite furious arm-twisting effort that fell at least a few votes short. Buffeted with pressure, three of the freshmen retired to a chapel to pray Thursday evening. Asked if he could support the bill as he arrived at Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy’s suite on the first floor of the Capitol later in the night, Scott replied, “Not yet.”

In part, that may be because the freshmen are less concerned about currying favor with Boehner than in aligning with South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a conservative kingmaker who has amassed substantial power in the state and among the Tea-soaked conservative grassroots. On Friday afternoon, some of the freshmen crossed the Capitol to the Senate side, where they discussed the alterations to the bill with DeMint, whose counsel they regularly seek and who has been a vociferous opponent of the Boehner plan. The state’s senior senator, Lindsey Graham, also opposes Boehner’s bill. But for conservative freshmen trying to navigate their way through the cross-currents of an unfamiliar city, DeMint is a handy weathervane — and a heavyweight whom rising Tea Party stars are reluctant to cross.

Duncan remains a no, and Wilson and Mulvaney have given no indication that they’ve changed their minds. According to The Hill’s whip count, Gowdy and Scott have swung back into the ‘maybe’ column after House Republican leaders altered the bill by making the second debt-limit hike, which would theoretically happen early next year, contingent on the passage of a constitutional balanced-budget amendment, a long-standing goal for fiscal conservatives. Either way, the South Carolina bloc’s resistance to Boehner’s bill was one of the chief reasons it stalled. When you are bucking your leaders, it helps to have allies to lean on.