Mike Lee has some strikes — but he's far from out

Utah's newest senator is making waves even if he's not passing laws.
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Washington • Sen. Mike Lee didn't balance the budget. He didn't slash the national debt. And he didn't shrink the federal government down to a far smaller beast.

But he tried, often and loudly, to do all three.

The new Utah senator spent his first year in office pressing relentlessly — and without regard for his chances — for a return to what he calls fiscal sanity, a conservative theme that helped launch his political career and remains his all-consuming focus.

"My role — a significant part of what I'm here to do — is to help bring about structural reform to the way we do business in Washington, specifically to the way we spend money in Washington," Lee said recently.

Entering his second year as a senator, Lee has earned a lot of fans with his dogged approach. But he has also faced bipartisan criticism from those worried that it comes at a cost.

Along the way, Lee has battled the Barack Obama White House — incurring the wrath of the president himself — taken on Democrats and has even jousted with the Federal Election Commission. There were also private squabbles with Lee's Senate colleague, Orrin Hatch.

It was, in many ways, the path Lee said he would take.

"He's done a fine job," says Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who heralded Lee's leadership in sponsoring Cut, Cap and Balance, a Republican effort to decrease and limit spending. "He has done what he campaigned to do."

That is to say, Lee continued his campaign straight into office.

Two weeks into his term, the new senator introduced a bill to prohibit raising the nation's debt ceiling. Soon after, he pushed legislation to amend the Constitution to require a balanced budget. His third bill: a resolution asking fellow senators to back a balanced-budget amendment.

Lee was an original member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus — which still includes only three senators — and this month launched into his own mini-revolt against Obama administration nominees. He has vowed to oppose every White House candidate for appointment in protest of the way the president installed Richard Cordray as first director of the new consumer watchdog agency using a recess appointment while the Senate says it was technically — and legally — still in session.

Lee is still the eager political newcomer who was able to topple 18-year veteran Sen. Bob Bennett by riding the crest of the tea party wave. And while his attempts at transformative change have failed, he still counts his efforts as progress for the cause.

The early defeats have been "disappointing," Lee acknowledges, "but in the process we changed the dialogue."

That effort has made Lee a minor celebrity for the right and a lightning rod for the left.

Attacking from within • While Lee carried the GOP's Cut, Cap and Balance legislation and sponsored the balanced-budget effort, he also charted his own, independent course.

He bucked party leaders on some votes, including backing the idea of civilian court trials for detainees at Guantanamo Bay while most Republican senators called for military tribunals.

Lee also remains the most high-profile Utah Republican who hasn't yet fallen in line behind Mitt Romney's presidential bid, despite the fact that Romney personally visited his office last year to ask for his endorsement.

When it comes to party loyalty, a majority of Republican senators vote with their GOP colleagues at least 90 percent of the time. Lee, according to a database created by The Washington Post, votes with his party about 77 percent of the time, making him one of the more independent-minded Republican senators.

In his first year, Lee succeeded in passing one piece of legislation: a bill he carried in the Senate for Rep. Rob Bishop that transferred 32 acres of federal land to the northern Utah town of Mantua.

He also became the first sitting member of Congress to ask the Federal Election Commission if he could head his own so-called Super PAC, a move that would have allowed him to accept unlimited amounts of cash from corporations and donors to support fellow conservatives. In a show of unity, the often-fractured FEC unanimously said no.

These efforts draw rave reviews from conservatives who elected Lee to drive such battles, even if they've not yet succeeded.

"Right now all he's able to do is raise issues and raise concerns and he'll have some effect," says Rep. Brad Daw, an Orem Republican who says Lee is beloved by his colleagues. "But over time I think that will turn into an incredible force in the Senate."

Critics, on the other hand, say they are aghast that Lee has taken to such extreme rhetoric and tactics in his short time in the Senate.

"Goodness knows the Democratic Party had problems with Senator Bennett from time to time, but we always respected Senator Bennett and we always understood that Senator Bennett put Utah first," says Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis. "Lee puts his extreme ideology ahead of everything, and it has been to the detriment of Utah and the country."

Lee also has raised the ire of some rural conservatives who feel slighted that he hasn't focused more on their concerns instead of the big-picture budget woes.

"I have to ask what's he doing for Utah," says former San Juan County Commissioner Lynn Stevens, a Republican. "He's doing a few things for Mike Lee and a few things for ideology, and if he stays in the Senate three or four terms he might get some of it passed."

That said, Stevens says he thinks Lee's "time will come" when he rises above ideological barriers and accepts compromise to get things done.

"He's a very bright fellow and he will learn that all of these ideological objections he had to the system, if he's going to get anything done, he's going to have to become part of the system," Stevens says.

Lee plans to do no such thing and makes no apologies for it. Asked if he's "fitting in" in the Senate, Lee ponders the question.

"I think I have a good working relationship with my colleagues," he says. "If that's what you mean by 'fit in,' yes, I do. If you mean by 'fit in' that I agree with everyone or take the same approach, then I don't."

Constitutional expert • Lee, who clerked for Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito, has made a name for himself in the Senate as Mr. Constitution, and he often cites the document on the Senate floor, in interviews and speeches. He frequently whips out his pocket Constitution — even when he's meeting with fellow senators.

The nation's founding document is still inspirational for Lee, who says his newest mission centers on mandating congressional and presidential approval for major bureaucratic regulations that he says are hamstringing the economic recovery.

"The Constitution entrusts the power to make laws to Congress. Article 1, Section 1 says all legislative powers granted herein shall be vested in Congress," Lee says, moving on to quote from Section 7 nearly verbatim.

Lee's first book, The Freedom Agenda, which he published while in office, cites "constitutionally limited government" about 20 times and includes a reprint of the document itself.

While his Senate colleagues may chuckle privately that they're well aware of the Constitution's language, they praise Lee for sharing his deep knowledge.

"He has some strongly held views on many issues and particularly on issues relative to the Constitution," says Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin. "Though we may see that subject much differently, I respect him very much."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, serves on the Judiciary Committee with Lee and says he likes having another "real lawyer" — someone who actually practiced law — on the panel.

"Whether it's the recess appointment issue or judicial nominations, a lot of these are very important issues to the country," Cornyn says. "So it's good to have someone with Mike's intellect and his experience in the Senate."

Praise comes, too, from Hatch, who calls Lee "sincere" and "dedicated" and noted that even though they didn't succeed with a balanced-budget amendment, they made great strides in convincing Americans of its need.

"We were able to motivate a lot of people in America that the only way we're going to be able to get this place under control is to be able to balance the budget with a constitutional amendment," Hatch said.

That's not to say that the relationship between Hatch and Lee has been smooth.

Lee still refuses to endorse Hatch's re-election campaign, though Lee has waded into Senate races in five other states; Hatch disagrees with Lee's blanket effort to try to block Obama appointees; and the two pushed balanced-budget amendments that were at odds with each other before they finally were able to work out a compromise.

Both senators now say they have a good rapport, with Lee noting they talk almost every day.

In the end, Lee sees his first year as a success, that he survived the steep learning curve, stayed true to his ideals and helped make a change, even if it was a change in the dialogue — not the law.

"Before I took office ... there was not a lot of open, active resistance to the type of earmark spending that was going on," Lee says. "There was serious discussion of yet another stimulus package and now a year into office, they're no longer talking about a stimulus package. They're no longer talking about whether to cut, they're talking about how much to cut."