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Thune rises as Congress falls

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., waves to the delegates during his speech Aug. 29 during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. (AP photo)

At the end of a packed town hall discussion where he decried America's debt, Sen. John Thune's most vexing problem arose.

It was a Social Security recipient.

The man instructed the third most powerful Republican in the U.S. Senate on how Congress might cut the nation's spending -- zeroing out foreign aid, for starters.

Then, he got to his real complaint. His Social Security check is increasing just a few percentage points while his Medicare premium is jumping by 10 percent.

"What," he asked Thune, "are you going to do about it?"

Thune had just spent the better part of an hour talking the Rapid City standing-room-only crowd of a few hundred people through a detailed presentation, explaining that entitlement reform -- especially Medicare -- is driving the nation's debt crisis.

Spending on entitlements, most prominently Social Security and Medicare, are known as "mandatory" federal spending. Mandatory spending now consumes 59 percent of the federal budget, while so-called "discretionary" spending on an array of other federal programs, infrastructure and the military among them, accounts for 34 percent, according to Thune's presentation. Interest on the federal debt accounts for 7 percent.

Thune highlighted this line from the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which has offered a plan to cut the nation's debt: "Federal health care spending represents our single largest fiscal challenge over the long run."

Congress and President Obama have agreed, albeit in car-wreck fashion, to $2.4 trillion in deficit reduction via a series of deals -- through regular appropriations, last summer's debt ceiling fight and the most recent fiscal cliff agreement, according to nationally recognized economist Steven Rattner . By about 2 to 1, the savings come from cuts in discretionary spending versus tax increases.

Nonetheless, Thune's town hall crowd -- including the man who asked the pointed question -- railed for more cuts rather than entitlement reform. Amid the debt dialogue, which was peppered with vows to resist gun control and fight the Environmental Protection Agency, Thune deftly offered wonky snippets -- for example, every 1 percent increase in gross domestic product equals $1 trillion in federal revenue over 10 years -- while calmly reinforcing the desire for more cuts.

"We're headed down a road right now that's going to take us to Greece," Thune told the Rapid City town hall crowd, referring to the country that has become the poster child for government debt crises.

Democratic critic

Thune's take on the nation's budget irritates South Dakota Democratic Party Chairman Ben Nesselhuf, who spoke to The Daily Republic after hearing Thune's presentation in Vermillion.

"It's the exact same speech I heard him give in 1996, about how bad the deficit is. To my knowledge, he hasn't sponsored a single piece of legislation to do anything about it," Nesselhuf said. "They say, 'It has to be the president's plan.' But you know as soon as he (President Obama) offers something, they will pick it apart."

Nesselhuf understands Thune's success. The universally acknowledged nice guy from Murdo has excelled in a system of partisan politics that has led to historic low approval ratings. Gallup recorded its lowest ever approval rating for Congress this month, 15 percent. In late 2011, a New York Times poll registered the country's approval of Congress at just 9 percent.

As a leader within the system, Thune can't claim clean hands, Nesselhuf said.

"No matter how much you like John Thune personally, he's playing the same game as everyone else," he said.

Rising in the ranks

On the heels of his series of town hall meetings held across South Dakota, Thune will return to Washington next week a bit closer to the top of the leadership ladder. In December 2011, his fellow Republican senators elected him as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, the group charged with delivering the Republican senators' message to the nation.

In addition, this month he replaced Texas' Kay Bailey Hutchinson as ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee.

He joined the Senate in 2005 and in 2006 nabbed his first leadership role, Republican chief deputy whip. He held that job until 2008, when he became vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. In 2009, he moved up to be Republican Policy Committee chairman. In his current job leading the Senate Republican Conference, he has just two more rungs to climb in the Senate -- whip and leader of his party.

He now has charge of about 65 staffers between his Senate seat, the Republican Conference and his new ranking member title, but spokeswoman Andi Fouberg said that number remains a bit fluid as the 113th Congress gets going.

What that all means for Thune's constituents in his home state gets more difficult to reckon the more dysfunctional Congress becomes.

But Thune and other observers agree it's still desirable to hold those leadership jobs.

"I bring a common sense perspective, a Midwest approach, to a lot of these issues. Having a seat at the table allows me to be that voice on almost every issue," Thune said, pointing to weekly leadership meetings as one venue where he regularly weighs in. "It's week to week, being in a position to try to put a South Dakota spin on it."

Larry Sabato , director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said leadership in Congress still means influence.

"You would rather have a leadership post than not," Sabato said. "You return a phone call to somebody in leadership before you return a phone call to an average member."

The leadership problem

That Thune has climbed so high before he's halfway through his second term underscores his skill as a politician. It also brings to mind his 2004 campaign against Tom Daschle, in which Thune undid the then-Senate minority leader largely by claiming that lofty position had caused Daschle to lose touch with his home state.

At the campaign's opening debate at Mitchell's Dakotafest , Thune scoffed at Daschle's claim that a leadership position ensured South Dakota a robust farm bill. Any senator "worth their salt" could deliver a farm bill, Thune said.

Now, with the farm bill in tatters, Thune stands by his charge against Daschle. He repeats that, as a Democrat, Daschle had a much tougher job reconciling the politics of heavily Republican South Dakota with a left-leaning caucus.

"I always said Tom was able to use that position, and everybody in South Dakota appreciated the fact he acquired a high-ranking position," Thune said. "But I think towards the latter part of his term, it became harder and harder for him because his party's agenda in Washington was so far removed from where South Dakota was."

As for the farm bill, Thune said he will continue to do all he can to get a five-year bill passed, noting that the legislation foundered in the House.

"We did move a farm bill through the Senate, which is no easy feat in this environment," Thune said. "There are difficult challenges with farm politics generally and the fiscal constraints we're dealing with."

Thune said he worked closely with Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who is the ranking committee member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, and used his own seat on that committee and his post leading the Republican Senate Conference to get the Senate bill passed in a form to benefit South Dakotans.

Similarly, Thune said his seat on the Finance Committee allowed him to play a major role in getting the wind energy tax credit extended and salvaging exemptions to the estate tax, sometimes called the death tax, in the "fiscal cliff" deal struck earlier this month.

Meanwhile, farm bill negotiations will start from scratch, and the University of Virginia's Sabato agrees that the problem lies in the House.

"He (Thune) can't do anything about the House," Sabato said. "The leadership in the House knows this is a disaster. The problem is what to do with the disaster. They don't know how to work around this. Any House and Senate member from a rural district or state is just apoplectic right now about the farm bill. It's one of many disgraces on Capitol Hill."

Thune claims success on a series of other recent bills that haven't grabbed many headlines. Those include preventing the European Union from taxing American airlines, requiring the Obama administration to state publicly what cuts it might make had the "fiscal cliff" deal not been reached, and a law that modernizes the way governments track hazardous waste.

Focusing on tax reform

Looking ahead, Thune expects to be front and center on the coming debate over tax reform. He advocates stripping out all loopholes in the tax code, bringing income tax rates down to 8 percent, 14 percent and 23 percent, then debating which deductions would be worth restoring in light of how they would affect rates.

"Anything we get done on spending and debt and taxes and tax reform, I expect to be right in the middle of those fights," Thune said.

If Thune successfully leads an overhaul of the American tax code, he could significantly increase his credibility as a presidential contender after considering but ultimately forgoing a presidential run in the 2012 cycle.

Dakota Wesleyan University's Dean of Leadership and Public Service Don Simmons expects Thune will be under scrutiny starting now.

"The Republican field is wide open for president. This time, Thune's going to get a lot of attention," Simmons said.

And the buzz could add to his influence in the Senate.

"He's one of the real shining stars who has been able to avoid the conflict and challenges other senators have faced," Simmons said.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Thune replaced Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., as ranking member on the Commerce Committee.