* DeMint has been a leading voice in conservative movement
* Criticized fellow Republicans in House on taxes
* Move not likely to alter balance of power in Senate
WASHINGTON, Dec 6 (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Jim DeMint, a
leading voice in the modern American conservative movement who
has riled fellow Republicans as well as Democrats, surprised
both parties on Thursday by declaring he was retiring from the
chamber to head a conservative think tank.
DeMint's announcement came two days after he won praise from
hard-liners by ripping into the top Republican, Speaker of the
House of Representatives John Boehner.
The 61-year-old South Carolinian, who preaches the value of
small government and freely criticizes fellow Republicans,
blasted Boehner for violating a long-time party taboo: proposing
increased revenue as part of a deficit-reduction plan.
"This isn't rocket science," DeMint said. "Everyone knows
that when you take money out of the economy (with tax hikes) it
DeMint's departure in January is not expected to affect the
balance of power in the Senate, which Democrats are set to
control next year, 53-47.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley appears certain to
appoint a fellow Republican to replace DeMint through 2014, when
a special election will be held.
A senior Republican speculated that Haley, seen as a rising
star, will choose either Tim Scott or Michael Mulvaney, who
represent South Carolina in the House of Representatives, and
perhaps run for the Senate seat herself in 2014.
DeMint was first elected to the Senate in 2004 after six
years in the House of Representatives.
In many ways, he has seemed ahead of his time in the Senate
with his small-government views, which became more popular in
recent years with the rise of the anti-Washington Tea Party
That movement suffered some big losses in last month's
election, however, when President Barack Obama won a second term
and DeMint's Republicans failed to win back the Senate.
Last year, DeMint was a founder of the Senate Tea Party
Caucus, which now has four members. Three more Tea Party
favorites were elected to the Senate.
With his uncompromising style, DeMint has often
single-handedly tied the Senate in knots by raising objections
to a host of measures to increase the scope of government.
Resulting gridlock fanned by DeMint and others on both sides
of the political aisle contributed to record low approval
ratings for Congress at or near single digits.
"I'm leaving the Senate now, but I'm not leaving the fight,"
DeMint said in a statement. "I've decided to join The Heritage
Foundation at a time when the conservative movement needs strong
leadership in the battle of ideas."
Founded in 1973, the Heritage Foundation, a few blocks from
the U.S. Capitol, is one of the nation's leading think tanks.
With 700,000 members, it has helped shape the debate in
Washington for years.
The Senate has long been known as "the world's most
deliberative body." But in recent years, the gridlock has made
it more frustrating and less attractive.
Earlier this year, Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, a leading
moderate, announced her retirement, fed up with the partisan
Darrell West of the Brookings Institution, a liberal think
tank, described DeMint's career move as highly unusual, yet
"It is surprising that a major political leader believes he
can get more done working at a think tank than being a member of
the U.S. Senate," West said.
"DeMint seems to believe that focusing on long-term ideas
outside elective office has greater potential than passing
legislation. It is an extraordinary conclusion in many respects,
but he may well be right," West said.
Ned Ryun, head of Tea Party group American Majority Action,
said he hoped DeMint would move Heritage Foundation further to
the right, criticizing it for proposing years ago an individual
mandate for health insurance, an idea Democratic President
Barack Obama included in his healthcare overall.
"Heritage has a robust presence and the resources to be a
very prominent platform," Ryun said. "Would I love to have him
in the Senate? Absolutely. But he said he was going to retire
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said DeMint, a fellow
South Carolinian, will be missed.
"What he's done over the last four years to build a
conservative movement, to get people involved in politics ... is
going to be part of a great legacy," Graham said.
"Jim made the Republican Party, quite frankly, look inward
and do some self-evaluation," Graham said. "Conservatism is an
asset, not a liability."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat who has often
tangled with DeMint, told reporters: "I've always liked the guy
- even though I disagree with so much of what he's done."