Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) is one of a batch of conservative freshmen Republicans who enjoyed the support of Tea Partyers and was able to beat more moderate opponents. But unlike Republicans such as Rob Portman (Ohio), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Dan Coats (Ind.), Lee has yet to make a mark or demonstrate that he can be a skilled legislator and a force to be reckoned with in the Senate.
I spoke to him by phone on Monday afternoon. He spoke in abrupt, clipped sentences and seemed to struggle with explaining the consequences of his budget votes. Would he support the latest continuing resolution on the 2011 budget? At first, he didn’t answer directly, saying that “whatever spending measure comes out will need to take a serious step” in addressing the debt. Does the CR that promises to cut another $6 billion for the next three weeks do that? He says, “Not to the necessary degree.”
As to the first CR he concedes it did some “good things,” but he voted no anyway. Did he favor a government shutdown or did he think the House could have come up with more cuts? He says that he and other Republicans certainly didn’t want a shutdown. Well, then, if the CR was the only option on the table and his vote was decisive, would he still have voted no? He would have, he says. Were the House Republicans wimps? “I don’t want to speak for them,” adding: “My vote is what it is.” He claims Senate opposition to the second CR is evidence that his view is taking hold.
I then asked him about the Panama and Colombia free-trade deals. He, along with 43 other senators, signed a letter urging Obama to complete those deals. Why? “It ought to be something to get behind,” he replies. Why is the White House dragging its feet? “I’m not sure,” he says.
We then moved on to entitlement reform. Would the Senate be willing to redesign these programs? He argues that a bipartisan effort is needed. He makes the point that even if you favor these programs, you should want to make the needed reforms to “preserve and protect ” them. He points out that even the president’s own advisers say that the current programs are not sustainable. But if the president won’t lead, should the Senate? He says he’s “not going out on a limb” and isn’t going to talk about “the next step.”
Lee was an accomplished assistant U.S. attorney and well-regarded litigator. But if he is to rally Republicans and make a difference, he will need to think systematically about his votes and the range of options before him. When out of office it is good and well to be dogmatic, but once elected, a senator’s job is to govern. Unless, of course, the name of the game is simply to hold the distinction as the most dogmatic man in the Senate. Unfortunately, that distinction often entails being the least effective member as well.