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Washington • Utah Sen. Mike Lee's office is pushing back against a volley of criticism from conservatives that his unsuccessful effort with Sen. Ted Cruz to thwart President Barack Obama's executive orders on immigration opened the door for confirmation of controversial administration nominees.
Lee and Cruz, R-Texas, objected Friday to adjourning for the weekend and tried to push through an amendment to a budget deal that would halt Obama's actions to protect millions of immigrants from being deported.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., took advantage of the extra time to push through several Obama nominees, including Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who had been strongly opposed by the gun lobby.
Lee noted that Reid had said Dec. 1 that he would keep the Senate in session until Christmas to confirm pending nominations a point reiterated on Twitter Friday night by Reid's spokesman, who added that Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky knew Reid would keep the Senate voting.
"This is an outgoing Democratic Senate majority leader," Lee told Fox News' Bill Hemmer on Monday. "It would have been political malpractice for him to adjourn for the year without getting these things through. I can guarantee you, Bill, not one person will be confirmed as a result of this that would not otherwise have been confirmed."
Lee's spokesman Brian Phillips added that the storyline pushed by some fellow Republicans is a "total fabrication."
"Nothing Lee did on Friday night led to a different outcome than what was already going to happen the following week," Phillips said. "Reid was going to do it one way or another, come hell or high water. He said so repeatedly."
A host of conservative critics came forward to blame Cruz and Lee for the confirmations.
Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer railed Monday against Cruz on Fox News, and although he didn't mention Lee, his target was the pair's move that Krauthammer said led to the confirmation of Murthy to the top public health office.
"What it did do is it gave Harry Reid the ultimate opening to use procedural tricks that today have given us the surgeon general who believes that gun control is a health issue," Krauthammer said. "So that's his achievement thus far. We're going to have a couple other of those as Harry Reid gets new appointees who otherwise would not have been nominated or approved into office as a result of the Cruz maneuver."
Lee and Cruz were able to raise a point of objection to Obama's actions as part of a compromise to pass the budget bill Saturday, though only 20 Republicans joined their effort.
The Washington Examiner editorialized Monday that Lee and Cruz were responsible for allowing Reid to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
"Cruz's and Lee's parliamentary freelancing gave Reid all he needed to advance the schedule by two full days and guarantee the confirmation of these nominations," the conservative editorial page wrote. "In exchange for making Reid's job easy on ramming the nominations through, all Cruz and Lee got was a symbolic floor vote against Obama's executive action on immigration."
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch was one of several Republicans openly critical of the Lee-Cruz plan, which in the end actually saw a quicker vote on the budget legislation than Reid had planned.
"You should have an end goal in sight if you're going to do these types of things, and I don't see an end goal other than irritating a lot of people," Hatch told The Associated Press.
Politico quoted Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire calling the Lee-Cruz strategy "ridiculous," Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona labeling it "counterproductive," and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine saying Cruz was "going to make everybody miserable."
Lee spokesman Phillips said senators were lashing out because their weekend plans were upended.
"Members were just mad that they had to work on Saturday," Phillips said, "and that's where this ridiculous story came from."
Meanwhile, Lee's office touted a new poll by the Club for Growth PAC, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project showing Lee with a 76 percent approval rating among likely Utah Republican primary voters and only an 11 percent unfavorable opinion.
A change in Utah's election law is set to open Republican primaries beginning in 2016 to independent voters a majority of whom have an unfavorable view of Lee, according to a recent Brigham Young University poll. The Utah Republican Party is challenging the constitutionality of that law, SB54.