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Spanish Fork • Sen. Mike Lee encouraged a large and enthusiastic crowd to join his effort to convince Republicans to strip funding from the Affordable Care Act, using the threat of a government shutdown to force the hands of Democrats.
And he says if the effort fails and the insurance programs begin on Jan. 1, it's unlikely the law known as Obamacare will ever get removed.
"If it does kick in, we will look for every opportunity to stop it, but it will be really, really difficult at that point," said Lee, R-Utah. "There are few things more permanent than a really big entitlement program."
So many people showed up at the Spanish Fork fairgrounds on Wednesday for his first town hall of the year that the gathering had to be relocated to a larger building. A pile of construction debris covered by a blue tarp lay just a few feet from where the senator addressed the crowd of roughly 300. And those attendees pitched in to help set up the folding chairs themselves.
Lee repeatedly battled a pesky fly as he fielded questions on issues ranging from the education standards known as Common Core (he opposes it, saying the federal government should leave education alone) to term limits (he supports them, saying "two terms in the Senate ought to be enough"). He also promised to introduce legislation on tax rates, transportation funding and online higher education.
But the overwhelmingly supportive crowd kept coming back to the Affordable Care Act and Lee's effort to defund the law. He got questions on how it would work and what happens if it fails. At one point, the crowd loudly booed Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, for opposing Lee's strategy.
Lee denied he was encouraging or even threatening a strategy to shut down the government, instead saying if the House passed a bill that funded everything but the health law, the onus would be on the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Barack Obama.
"I have never asked for a shutdown. I don't want a shutdown. We don't need a shutdown," he said, arguing that stripping funding through the budget bill remains the best available option to stopping the law from moving forward.
This fiscal fight is expected to dominate September, and if Congress can't reach an agreement by Sept. 30, the government will shut down.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., signed on to Lee's effort on Wednesday becoming the 13th senator to join him. To successfully block any funding bill that includes money for health reform, Lee will need to get the support of at least 27 more senators. To pass a bill that doesn't include the funding, it would need a total of 60 votes.
That's a tall order when Hatch, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and tea party friendly senators like Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., have already opposed the effort. They feel it is a politically dangerous move and they say, if successful, it wouldn't stop the president from moving forward with the law since it gets major funding from guaranteed sources, similarly to Medicare.
Lee isn't deterred and at this stage, he's focused on convincing the GOP-controlled House to pass a bill that doesn't fund the health reform law. But none of Utah's four House members has yet to support his plan.
Instead, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, plans to champion a separate effort to delay the rollout of Obamacare by a year, tying it to the administration's past decision to take an extra year before implementing requirements on large businesses and a program to check the eligibility of individuals seeking government subsidies. He said the effort is "more realistic" and has a chance at bipartisan support.
Hatch has warned that Lee's strategy could backfire, allowing Democrats to paint the GOP as obstructionists and hurt the party's chance of taking control of the Senate in 2014.
"If you are going to take on Obamacare or shut down the government, you better win," he said.
Answering a question from the audience in Spanish Fork, Lee said he couldn't put odds on the potential success of the defunding plan, but said he would try every tactic he could to stop a law he vehemently opposes.
"I don't know how not to fight," he said.