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In latest job, Jim DeMint wants to give Tea Party ' a new mission'

Sen. Jim DeMint
Pat Anastasi | CNBC
Sen. Jim DeMint

Former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, ousted last month as head of the Heritage Foundation think tank, is joining a fast-growing, conservative movement that is pushing states to seek a constitutional convention to rein in federal spending and power.

DeMint, a prominent figure among the Tea Party activists who helped Republicans seize control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, will serve as a senior adviser to the Convention of the States Project, providing a jolt to its efforts to marshal grassroots support for a state-led movement to amend the U.S. Constitution.

News of DeMint's role was provided first to USA TODAY, and a formal announcement is expected Monday.

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Under Article V of the Constitution, there are two avenues to propose amendments: Two-thirds of each house of Congress can vote to do so or two-thirds of the states – 34 in total – can request the convention.

In either case, three-fourths of the states – or 38 states – must ratify any amendment proposed by convention delegates.

The USA has not held a constitutional convention since the first one in 1787, but proponents of a state-led conclave see growing momentum for their cause. Twelve states already have adopted the group's call, and its leaders hope to add 10 to 15 next year. A separate effort demanding a convention to consider a balanced budget amendment already has the support of 27 states.

"The Tea Party needs a new mission," DeMint told USA TODAY. "They realize that all the work they did in 2010 has not resulted in all the things they hoped for. Many of them are turning to Article V."

DeMint and other proponents of a state-led convention say the timing is right. Populist anger with Washington helped sweep President Trump into office. At the state level, Republicans now dominate, controlling both legislative chambers in 32 states and governors' mansions in 33. "This is a perfect time for us," DeMint said. "People are disgusted with Washington. They are ready to move power back closer to home."

The movement DeMint is joining asks for a convention covering three sweeping topics: imposing "fiscal restraint" on Washington, reducing the federal government's authority over states and imposing term limits on federal officials.

The group said the convention that results from the state applications could also propose a range of amendments from one requiring the federal government to balance the budget or to one ending lifetime appointments for federal judges, including Supreme Court justices.

Dramatic action is needed, advocates say, because they say Congress will not act on its own to curb what they view as runaway spending and the federal government's overreach "You can't drain the swamp," said former Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn, who joined the group after leaving Congress in 2014 and has written a book, Smashing the DC Monolopy, about the effort. "You have to muzzle the alligators."

At the center of the effort: Mark Meckler, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, and his nonprofit, Citizens for Self-Governance. Meckler has teamed up with other conservative groups, including American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), to advance the plan at the state level.

DeMint, a conservative firebrand, made his political mark as an early backer of upstarts such as Utah's Mike Lee and Texas' Ted Cruz, helping to elect them to the Senate and pull the chamber further to the right. He left the Congress in 2012 to run Heritage.

Last month, Heritage's board of directors voted to remove DeMint, citing "worsening management issues." In an interview, DeMint called his abrupt firing "perplexing."

"Heritage has never been more effective or influential, but clearly the board decided to take a different direction," he said. "Frankly, I am fine with that and what I am doing now with the convention of the states."

Later this month, DeMint hits the road for the group and will travel to North Carolina, where the state's Senate passed a resolution in April for a convention of the states. Advocates are pressing the North Carolina House to do the same. Later this summer, he will travel to Denver to address conservative state legislators at ALEC's annual gathering. ALEC, whose members include Republican lawmakers and business interests, writes model legislation, allowing conservative lawmakers to quickly replicate bills across the country. It has adopted the Article V language advanced by Meckler's group.

Unprecedented move

The effort faces big hurdles. For starters, the country has never called together all 50 states for an amendment-writing convention.

Legal questions abound: Would the convention be open to the public? Is it fair to allow tiny states like Maine to have the same power as populous states like California at a convention? And how would states prevent a "runaway convention" that could make wholesale changes to the Constitution on everything from religion and gun rights?

Proponent say their application limits of the scope of a convention to amendments that deal with federal term limits, fiscal restraints on the federal government and limits on Washington's power.

Bu some legal experts question whether organizers can limit the topics at all. "When there's a constitutional convention, in a sense, all bets are off," said Michael Gerhardt, an expert on the Constitution and a law professor at the University of North Carolina. "I would think almost anything would be fair game."

As the under-the-radar movement gains steam, some liberal groups and Democratic legislators are scrambling to block proponents from reaching the two-thirds threshold. This year, New Mexico, Maryland and Nevada all rescinded their applications for a convention, some of them on the books for decades. Delaware did so last year.

Opponents say the topics described by the convention advocates are broad enough to bring sweeping change. "This idea of opening up our Constitution, which gives everyone in the country our basic protections, is a bad idea, particularly in this hyper-partisan environment," said Viki Harrison, the executive director of Common Cause New Mexico. She helped lead the successful effort to yank New Mexico's convention applications — one of which dated to 1951.

"It's the biggest sleeper in the country right now," said of the convention of the states movement. "People don't know about it and don't realize the threat of a runaway convention."

Anonymous donors

Meckler said his group has about 2.3 million supporters, including some 80,000 active volunteers, as it works to develop political operations in most states. DeMint will have a paid position with the group.

Citizens for Self-Governance saw its annual receipts grow to $5.7 million in 2015, according to its most recent publicly available tax returns show.

As a nonprofit, it does not have to publicly disclose its donors. But separate tax filings show a foundation affiliated with conservative hedge-fund billionaire Bob Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, donated $500,000 to the group in 2014.

The Mercers emerged as big financial supporters of Ted Cruz's presidential bid in 2016 before backing Trump in the general election. Rebekah Mercer served on Trump's transition team and is closely aligned with top White House adviser Stephen Bannon. She also serves on Heritage's board.

Meckler said the Mercer donation was a one-time grant, although he'd welcome more financial support from the family.

In all, more than 70,000 "grassroots" donors back the group, he said. Meckler would not reveal the identities of larger donors, saying they would be "endlessly harassed' should their identities become public. "We disclose what we are legally required to disclose," he said.

Meckler said he believes his movement could hit a tipping point – mirroring the voter anger over President Obama's health-care law that helped mobilize Tea Party activists into a political force. "The American people are fed up. Trump is not the solution. He's a symptom of that frustration," he said. "The American people are seeing that didn't solve the problem, so now what? Eventually, they will come to this solution."