Senate Republican leaders have rallied around Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) bill to automatically prevent government shutdowns as part of their effort to refocus on fiscal restraint and runaway federal spending, leadership aides said Tuesday.

DeMint and GOP leaders hope the new emphasis will help heal wounds caused by months of infighting between traditional old-guard Republicans like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.) on one hand and fiscal conservatives like DeMint and Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Jeff Sessions (Ala.) on the other. The split has been most pronounced during the immigration and ethics fights, where conservatives openly broke with their leaders on a range of issues.

DeMint said he hopes his “Government Shutdown Prevention Act” leads to a renewed focus on fiscal issues by the entire Republican Conference. “We didn’t lose the last election just because of Iraq, we lost it because of spending,” he said, adding that this bill is “a first step where Republicans can come together around an idea.”

DeMint’s bill would end the practice of passing multiple continuing resolutions following the Sept. 30 close of the fiscal year, as has become the norm in recent years. Democrats and Republicans alike have found it increasingly difficult to pass appropriations bills on time, and Congressional sessions routinely run well into the fall and winter as lawmakers pass a series of CRs while they haggle over the next year’s spending.

Under DeMint’s bill, a CR would be put in place automatically so long as individual appropriations bills remain outstanding. That could lift some of the pressure on Members to pass massive omnibus bills that have received little scrutiny.

A senior GOP leadership aide said that following a meeting of Lott, DeMint and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.), leadership decided to sign on en mass to the DeMint measure. DeMint’s bill gives Republicans the “first good platform to take a leap into spending policy,” the aide said, adding that “we have managed to find a place where we are all pretty united.”

According to DeMint, Lott made a presentation on the CR bill during the Conference’s weekly luncheon on Tuesday, and it was apparently received well by Republicans. “It’s encouraging that the leadership is taking up this matter. ... It should be a Conference effort,” DeMint said.

Kyl’s staff, meanwhile, has circulated a memo to Republican offices outlining how the bill works and providing Members with talking points to use when discussing it and the broader issue of spending. For instance, the memo argues that “Democrats are manipulating and delaying the appropriations process in order to use the threat of a government shutdown to cow lawmakers into accepting more wasteful Washington spending,” and that “To oppose the Government Shutdown Prevention Act is to empower reckless spenders in Congress and enable them to play budgetary brinkmanship with taxpayers’ money.”

Indeed, Lott — who privately has sparred with DeMint over his use of the Republican Steering Committee to pursue fiscally conservative agenda items in the past — praised the legislation as a needed fix to a broken appropriations system and a climate that favors increased spending. “I do believe we lost control of spending ... I think the whole concept is outrageous, that’s why I’m supporting this rule of an automatic CR,” Lott said.

Earlier this month, GOP pollsters presented the conclusions of a series of focus groups and polls conducted to gauge how effective the party’s messaging efforts have been. The results indicated that Republicans need to shift their focus away from tax cuts and security and more onto issues related to government spending and fiscal responsibility.

According to the leadership aide, those findings helped set the stage for leadership’s embrace of the DeMint CR bill. “All the polling we had collected and all the focus groups made it clear that spending is a big concern” with voters, the aide explained. The message of controlling spending is a traditional GOP platform, although the aide conceded that Republicans often lost that focus under the Bush administration.

Nevertheless, the message “fits naturally where we as a party have traditionally been,” the aide said, and gives Republicans a potent policy issue to use against Democrats. “It’s going to allow us to be aggressive and go on the offensive on an issue,” the aide said, adding “the spending battle, quite frankly, is the battle for the fall.”

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