Washington • Jim DeMint is back in a familiar role - challenging other Republicans to put conservative principles over political costs, and not particularly caring how many friends or allies he offends along the way.
Three years after he helped lead the unsuccessful fight to defeat what he and other foes branded Obamacare, DeMint is returning to the fray.
Now, though, the South Carolinian is waging his battle not as a United States senator, but as head of the most influential conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Joined by Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican whom DeMint helped get elected by funneling money from his Senate Conservatives Fund, DeMint is on a nationwide "Defund Obamacare Tour" to gin up support for a bid in Congress to withhold funding to implement the landmark health-insurance law.
DeMint and Cruz are demanding that other Republican lawmakers try to block funding to implement Obamacare by providing no money for it in appropriations bills for the 2014 fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 and by withholding funding as a condition for agreeing to raise the federal debt ceiling later in the fall.
"No one I know wants to shut down the government," DeMint told McClatchy on Saturday. "All we're talking about is withholding money that would be spent on implementing Obamacare. The law is unaffordable, unworkable, unfair and unpopular."
But with Democrats holding a Senate majority and President Barack Obama in the White House, any effort to defund the president's signature legislative initiative risks sparking a government shutdown or a federal debt default.
Despite polls showing that most Americans and even a majority of Republicans oppose shutting down the government over Obamacare, DeMint said GOP members of Congress should do what's right, not what's expedient.
"They should vote according to their principles, rather than out of a political calculus," DeMint said. "Adopting such a high-minded approach would, incidentally, help them politically, too. Americans will reward leadership and courage."
In Fayetteville, Ark., where DeMint and Cruz last week kicked off the tour that will take them to nine cities by Thursday, DeMint said: "I'm not interested in the political futures of folks who think they might lose a showdown with the president."
Chiding Republicans who fear a confrontation with Obama, DeMint told National Public Radio: "I think he knows that Republicans are afraid. And if they are, they need to be replaced."
While Republicans were united in voting against Obamacare when Congress passed it in 2010, the drive to block funding for the law's implementation is splitting the party, with some prominent GOP leaders and conservative commentators opposing the strategy.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina branded the initiative "the dumbest idea I've ever heard," and conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer sneered, "This is nuts."
The tactic has even divided the Republican senators DeMint helped to gain election in 2010 and 2012 with huge financial support from his Senate Conservatives Fund, with which DeMint severed ties last year before leaving the Senate to take the Heritage Foundation helm.
Among the Senate's DeMint acolytes, Cruz, Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida back the drive to defund Obamacare, while Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin oppose it.
The Senate Conservatives Fund is now running radio and Internet ads against Sen. Lindsey Graham, a fellow South Carolina Republican, and four other GOP senators who have expressed reluctance to risk a government shutdown in a budget fight over Obamacare.
"As much as I want to get rid of Obamacare, I'm not going to deny Social Security payments to our seniors and funding to our military," Graham said in response. "I think that's a bridge too far."
Graham, who has drawn Republican primary opposition in his 2014 re-election bid, noted that he is among 29 Republican co-sponsors of legislation by Cruz to defund Obamacare. He's also praised S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley for refusing to participate in the health-insurance program by preventing Medicaid expansion in South Carolina.
FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group in Washington, is holding a "Cardboard Lindsey Graham" town hall meeting in North Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday, where it plans to display a cutout of the second-term senator if he declines its invitation to appear. Graham has scheduled telephone conference calls with constituents instead.
The Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks are also targeting Republican Sens. Burr, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Two other conservative groups, For America Inc. and Tea Party Patriots, are waging similar initiatives against some of those senators, along with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi.
In the House, DeMint, Cruz and allied conservative groups are pressuring Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders to sign a letter urging no money for Obamacare, a missive crafted by freshman Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina.
As he barnstorms around the country, DeMint is hoping to reprise the summer of 2010 when tea party activists disrupted lawmakers' town hall constituent meetings with angry protests against the health-insurance measure that Congress had just passed with no Republican support. Those protests fueled a large turnout by conservatives in the November 2010 elections that gave Republicans control of the House, setting the stage for the partisan gridlock that has gripped Washington.
But in the three intervening years, several key events have changed the political landscape. Among them, the Supreme Court last year upheld Obamacare as constitutional, with Chief Justice John Roberts, an appointee of Republican President George W. Bush, writing the majority opinion in a 5-4 ruling. And Obama was re-elected last November in a decisive victory over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, with Obamacare a central part of the president's winning campaign.
Romney has joined a slew of other influential Republicans and conservatives in coming out against risking a government shutdown over Obamacare funding.
Such opposition from within GOP ranks doesn't faze DeMint. He said the House should stop holding symbolic votes to repeal the health-care law - which it's done 37 times in as many months - and start using the power of the purse to withhold the money necessary for it to begin providing medical coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.
The next scheduled stop for DeMint on his Defund Obamacare Tour is Indianapolis on Monday, followed by rallies in Columbus, Ohio, Pittsburgh and Wilmington, Del., later in the week.
"This might be the last off-ramp for us to stop Obamacare before it gets so enmeshed in our culture that it's impossible to change," DeMint said.