Heritage Foundation President and former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint tells Newsmax that the House should defund Obamacare no matter what the risk to the Republican Party, even if it leads to a government shutdown.
The South Carolina Republican also says the Affordable Care Act will do more damage to the nation "than anything I've seen pass in my lifetime."
Editor's Note: Should ObamaCare Be Repealed? Vote in Urgent National Poll
And he insists, in an exclusive interview Thursday with Newsmax TV, that a path to citizenship for illegals constitutes amnesty and opposing immigration reform won't necessarily hurt the GOP.
Story continues below video.
DeMint served in the Senate from 2005 until he resigned in January of this year. He took over the helm of the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, in April.
DeMint was one of the most outspoken critics of Obamacare while he was in the Senate, but he said when he resigned that he could be more effective on issues like this from outside Congress. When asked Thursday if he is finding that to be the case, DeMint said, "I sure am."
"The key to saving our country, to turning things around and really putting the government on the right track, is getting people informed, engaged all over the country. If Americans decide that they want to stop this unfair and unaffordable bill called Obamacare, they can do it, but the congressmen and senators themselves will not do it. They'll not take that kind of risk unless the American people rise up and effectively tell them that's what they want to do.
"I've been to about 45 cities, meeting with a lot of advocates, a lot of tea party folks, independent groups, just talking about what we need to do as a people to turn our country around, but we're going to focus on this Obamacare bill, which increasingly people know is unfair. Congress is getting special favors — big unions, big corporations are getting waivers, and it looks like it's the little guy that's going to get stuck with the bill.
"People are getting notices that they'll either lose their insurance or it's going to cost more. We tell people that if the House passes a government funding bill that doesn't include Obamacare, we can stop this bill in its tracks."
Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Mike Lee of Utah are among the Republican senators pushing for defunding, DeMint said. But others in the GOP are warning that it will do more harm than good, including Mitt Romney, who said "we need to exercise great care about any talk of shutting down government."
DeMint comments: "Since when do Americans not fight for what is right because they're afraid they might lose?
"We all know this is a terrible bill, and the more we learn about it the more we understand it's going to hurt people, it's going to hurt our country. This may be our last chance to stop it, and the only way to stop it when Republicans control only the House is to fund the government but not to include any funding for Obamacare.
"Now if the president decides he's not going to accept government funding and allows the government to shut down, then it's going to become apparent that he's letting the government shut down because he wants to save this failed bill.
Editor's Note: Should ObamaCare Be Repealed? Vote in Urgent National Poll
"So this is an argument that we can win with the American people. If we tell people the truth about the bill, more people are going to blame the president when all is said and done.
"If Americans don't see Republicans fighting for something they promised to fight for, that's going to do much more damage than the risk of possibly taking on the president and not getting everything we want," DeMint said.
"One of the primary things they were tasked to do is to stop Obamacare," he continued. "That's the issue we hope that Speaker [John] Boehner and Mitch McConnell will focus on right now — recognizing we made a promise to the American people to stop this very destructive bill. That's what we need to do before it's implemented in October.
"If Obamacare is not worth fighting for and risking losing a battle for, I don’t think there is anything worth fighting for anymore. This bill will do more damage to America, hurt more people personally, than anything that I've seen pass in my lifetime."
Asked point-blank if Republicans should defund Obamacare regardless of the risk, DeMint responds: "That's right. The risk in doing the right thing here is much less than not doing anything at all."
A Heritage Foundation study the immigration reform bill passed in the Republican-controlled Senate will cost taxpayers $6 trillion — and its authors drew a lot of criticism.
But DeMint says: "I don't think anyone questions that amnesty for illegal immigrants is going to cost our country trillions of dollars.
"That doesn't mean there aren't a lot of great folks and we shouldn't treat them with civility, but this idea they're going to grow our economy and help the incomes of immigrants who are already here legally and American citizens is really not true. It's going to lower wages — even the Congressional Budget Office says that.
"I do want to say that immigration is the key part of America's strength and heritage and we need to show all the folks who come here legally that we not only welcome them, we know they're contributing to our country. But it's a totally different thing when you start saying, 'OK, those who come here illegally are going to be granted amnesty and citizenship and benefits.' This is not fair to the 4 million people around the world who are waiting to come here legally.
"Our immigration system used to be based on what's best for Americans, and that's the position we take at Heritage.
"Conservatives like myself are very much for immigration reform. We've got to have an immigration system that works better, that controls our borders, that allows guest workers, temporary workers. There's a lot of folks in the technology industry that need more high-tech visas. There are a lot of things we need but these things should not be held hostage for granting amnesty to those who came here illegally."
DeMint does not agree that failure to pass immigration reform will hurt Republicans among Hispanic voters.
"We've talked to thousands of Hispanics and we know that Republicans are not going to win their votes by passing an immigration bill that grants amnesty," he says.
"Republicans need to move toward more of what immigrant Hispanic-Americans really want, and that's opportunities, jobs, and recognition that they're important to all of us.
"So that's what we need to do. Passing a bill is not going to win votes. In fact, it's likely to do more to hurt the Republican Party right now than anything else."
DeMint adds: "The system we have now is probably better than anything that would come out of Congress under this administration because the laws are already in place to control our borders."
He said an existing law calls for building 700 miles of double-layer fencing along the southern border's most vulnerable areas.
"But the administration has ignored it for five years. That tells me that no matter what bill they pass, this administration is not going to fix our immigration system. What they want is citizenship for those who are here illegally because they believe they're going to join unions and they're going to vote for the Democrat Party.
"But putting people on a path to citizenship is amnesty," DeMint said.
"What we talk about at Heritage is, let's fix our immigration system one step at a time: controlling our borders, creating a workable worker identification system, a good guest worker program that allows immigrants to come and go for those jobs that we need, whether they be in farming or hospitality or construction. Those are the kinds of things we need to do first, and then we'll have a system we can use to deal with those who are already here."
In his wide-ranging Newsmax interview, DeMint also addresses several other important issues facing the nation.
- On the farm bill passed in the House: "It's still in play, but we needed to take step one, which was to divide food stamps from the farm bill. I mean 80 percent of the thing we call a farm bill was really food stamps, and food stamps are out of control. We doubled the cost from $40 billion to $80 billion just during Obama's time, so that was a good first step. But the rest of the farm bill needs some reform."
- On defense and the war on terror: "The thing we're concerned about at Heritage with this administration is an apparent lack of emphasis on a strong defense and demonstrating a resolve to the world that we're going to stand up for ourselves and our allies. ... The drone strikes are a way to at least show that we're there, but I'm afraid that a lot of the progress that we see on the terrorist side now is a response to a vacuum created by a lack of American leadership."
- On the deadly attacks on American diplomatic personnel in Benghazi, Libya: "We haven't gotten to the bottom of what really happened in Benghazi and why. Certainly, we haven't prosecuted those who killed Americans. And something is seriously wrong with the fact that all the information seems to be coordinated to mislead people from the very beginning here. It's hard to get folks who were the survivors to even speak, and that suggests that we're not getting to the truth."
- On the primary challenges facing several prominent Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: "Primaries are always good for our party, particularly at this time. There's no consensus leader of the Republican Party nationally right now, so there's going to be some jostling for position. It's certainly not a comfortable thing for an incumbent to go through, but right now the Republican Party really needs to sort out what it believes, what it's willing to stand for, and not keep drifting all over the place because of a fear of Obama."
- On the challenge to Sen. Lindsey Graham, a supporter of the Senate's immigration reform bill in DeMint's home state, South Carolina: "I don't have a sense right now if the Republicans are going to make it a single-issue race. This is a good time for the people of South Carolina to decide who they want to represent them in the Senate, so it's an opportunity for Sen. Graham and the opposition to put their ideas out there. This is a healthy thing. We need to do it all over the country. It's been good for the party — that's how we ended up with prominent leaders like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee. We had tough primaries, and a lot of times the people who are not supported by the Republican Party are the ones who win, and that is sending signals to the Republican establishment that conservatives around the country want strong conservative leaders."
- On potential GOP presidential candidates in 2016: "The important thing for us right now, as leaders of the conservative movement, is not to focus on the person, but to focus on the ideas and the policies that will move our country in the right direction.
"What we want to do is make those ideas so persuasive and so pervasive throughout the country that candidates embrace them when they run for Congress or Senate in 2014, and when they run for president in 2016. So we're not as concerned about the person right now as the right ideas," DeMint said.
© 2016 Newsmax. All rights reserved.