WASHINGTON — A bloc of Senate conservatives, led by South Carolina's Jim DeMint, flexed their muscles Thursday, pledging to block any bill they alone deem wasteful or unconstitutional.
Seven other GOP senators joined DeMint's effort, including three freshman he helped elect in November, and veteran Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee.
"I'm proud to stand with my fellow conservative Senate colleagues to require thorough review of bills to prevent secret passage of wasteful spending and unconstitutional legislation," DeMint said.
Beyond passing judgment on whether measures are constitutional, DeMint's new group wants any new spending to be offset by other funding cuts and for duplicative government programs to be consolidated or eliminated.
The group also demands that all government programs be reviewed periodically and that the cost of every bill be made public before the Senate votes on it, along with the full text.
Jon Summers, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he's pleased that DeMint and his allies recognize "that we need to reduce the deficit and cut spending to make government leaner and more efficient."
But, Summers said, "it's a shame their austerity does not apply to the unpaid-for, budget-busting special interest tax breaks that they seem all too happy to hand out."
DeMint was overwhelmingly elected to a second Senate term in November after gaining a national following among conservative activists by blocking immigration legislation and helping to eliminate spending earmarks.
DeMint gained widespread notice for — but failed to deliver on — his 2009 vow to make federally mandated health insurance President Barack Obama's "Waterloo."
But he did succeed in electing new conservatives to the Senate in 2010.
The three freshmen who signed DeMint's pledge Thursday — Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — received a combined $818,913 from DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund in their GOP primary races against more mainstream candidates backed by establishment Republicans.
The donations to Lee, Paul and Johnson were part of $9.3 million that DeMint's leadership fund gave to conservative Senate candidates. Two other recipients — Marco Rubio of Florida and Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey — also were elected, but they didn't sign the obstruction pledge, which was sent Thursday to all senators.
"The wasteful spending coming from Washington is crippling our economy and taking us deeper into an already massive debt," said Paul, the son of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican who ran for president in 2008 as a Libertarian Party candidate.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire freshman who defeated DeMint's candidate in the Republican primary, joined the group.
Three veteran Republicans also signed on, including McCain and Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John Ensign of Nevada.
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., offered no immediate comment.
Ilona Nickels, a former analyst for the Congressional Research Service and C-SPAN who's written extensively on government, said she's troubled by the group's vow to block legislation it deems unconstitutional.
"It's a stretch for any senator or group of senators to definitively declare a measure as constitutional or not," Nickels said.
"Constitutionality of a bill is a legitimate and frequent part of congressional debate on whether or not to pass it," she said. "But the final arbiter of what is or is not constitutional is, of course, the Supreme Court. The Senate or the House can't settle that question on its own."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2011