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Conservative Heritage Foundation Wields Clout in Budding Trump Administration

A think tank that emerged in the 1970s as the premier conservative policy and research operation in Washington, D.C., the group has more recently become a political player in its own right.

Now headed by Jim DeMint, a former U.S. senator who made his name as a conservative firebrand while serving in Congress, Heritage has become a hybrid of an administration-in-waiting for Mr. Trump, a policy factory for the new Republican-led Congress and a political advocacy group whose aim is to push the GOP in a more conservative direction. The group has a nonpartisan nonprofit, called the Heritage Foundation, and a six-year-old advocacy arm, Heritage Action.

“I think he’s fortunate to have had this group ready to go with ideas and suggestions with personnel that wouldn’t be just a retread,” said David McIntosh, president of the conservative advocacy group Club for Growth.

Representatives for Mr. Trump didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mr. McIntosh said he recognized that Mr. Trump was building an ideologically diverse administration, reaching out to moderate Republicans, some Democrats and people with nonpolitical backgrounds. But the involvement of Heritage was a comfort to many conservatives who worried about Mr. Trump’s commitment to the movement’s principles such as free movement of capital, fiscal responsibility and limited government.

“For a conservative like me, it’s a great sign that he’s willing to have a lot of them there,” said Mr. McIntosh.

The Heritage Foundation has dozens of current or former staff members working on the transition or in consideration for top positions, including one of the think tank’s co-founders, Ed Feulner, who is helping shape personnel.

His deputy is Becky Norton Dunlop, who previously served as a former policy fellow at Heritage. Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, now working on domestic issues for the transition, is also a former Heritage Fellow. Paul Winfree, Heritage’s director of economic policy studies, is overseeing a unit tasked with budget issues. Former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who served as a fellow at Heritage, has also been talked about as a top candidate for a position in the Trump administration.

James Wallner, head of research at the Heritage Foundation, said the involvement of the foundation’s robust network of fellows, staffers and alumni offered hints at the direction Mr. Trump plans to take in governing.

“I think it’s an encouraging sign about the direction in which the new administration and President-elect Trump intends to go,” said Mr. Wallner, a former Capitol Hill staffer.

Mr. Trump’s unorthodox run for president upended the political calculus within the Republican Party, as he broke from GOP orthodoxy on issues like free trade. Mr. Trump has also showed less interest in traditional Republican priorities like deficit reduction and entitlement reform and more interest in pursuing an ambitious infrastructure agenda that might require additional government spending.

In recent years, Heritage has taken a more conservative and sometimes combative tone in support of traditional Republican policy planks.

Heritage Action helped push lawmakers into an unpopular government shutdown in 2013 over efforts to defund President Barack Obama’s health-care law. During the debate over the shutdown and proposed defunding, the advocacy arm’s more aggressive tactics against fellow Republicans rankled some legislators, with North Carolina GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers accusing Heritage Action on Twitter of attacking conservatives.

Heritage Action CEO Mike Needham said the group is looking forward “to working to deliver on the promises Republicans have been running on since 2010, including the full repeal of Obamacare.” None of that would have been possible, he said, if conservatives had “given up the fight…and considered Obamacare settled.”

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