Washington • Congress seized up, the government shut down but Sen. Mike Lee was still on the job.
Beyond his passionate Senate speeches, the Utah Republican has been prowling the halls of the House, huddling with tea-party colleagues there to push a reluctant party leadership to adopt their strategy to cripple the Affordable Care Act by tying it to the federal budget fight.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has emerged as the face of the effort and garnered, by far, the most attention, but Lee is the behind-the-scenes strategist and a wingman rooting on Cruz as he pitches their plan to Republicans and the news media.
“There is a real unified caucus behind this effort,” Lee told radio host Sean Hannity on Thursday, with the senator noting he’d just gotten off the phone wooing an Oklahoma House member. “They understand this is a fight worth fighting.”
“Senator, keep up the good fight,” Hannity responded. “Tell those guys, ‘Hold the line. Don’t give in to the bully.’ ”
As the country entered its first government shutdown in nearly 18 years and Republicans and Democrats squared off with no end in sight to the impasse, Lee’s role has made him a hero, or a villain, depending on whom you ask.
He’s been called principled and dedicated by friends, an anarchist and extortionist by foes. Privately, he’s been screamed at by fellow Republicans, but, by the senator’s own account, cheered on by folks back home who hate the health care law.
The government shutdown officially started Oct. 1, but the strategy that led to it began in July. That’s when Lee first promised to vote against any budget bill that provided money for Obamacare, and he persuaded 12 of his GOP colleagues to join him .
When he released his letter July 25, it was largely seen as a sideshow to the plan House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was pushing to use the budget to get some spending concessions, while using a separate bill to allow the government to borrow more money as the lever to delay the health law.
GOP muscle • But Lee, Cruz and a group of about 30 tea-party Republicans in the House were able to muscle the GOP caucus to follow their lead rather than that of their leader, a stunning show of their strength in a party still struggling to find a new identity after the 2012 election.
The GOP-led House passed its “defund Obamacare” plan, and, as promised, the Democratic-run Senate rejected it.
The House then tried to delay the health law for a year. The Senate again said no.
Next up was an attempt to delay the requirement for people to buy insurance. No dice.
Then, after a tense day of unsuccessful back-and-forth legislative pingpong, the government shut down for the first time since President Bill Clinton was fighting with House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
And since then, Lee and Cruz appear to be the ones driving the Republican strategy, including an effort pushed by the duo to pass smaller budget bills on popular issues such as veterans’ affairs and national parks to remove the heat from the GOP.
Lee has used the showdown to raise campaign money, sending a barrage of stridently worded emails to supporters explaining his view of the stare-down.
“Democrats and the administration are counting on Republicans withering and waving the white flag of surrender to their takeover of our economy and health care system,” he wrote in one sent Thursday. “Personally, I’m not ready to give in easily, and I don’t think the American people are either.”
Cruz, who more than anyone has been vaulted to the national stage in the fight, has repeatedly praised Lee for starting the current fight and for his unwavering support.
“Mike Lee is extraordinary. He is brilliant, deeply principled and utterly fearless,” Cruz said in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune. “Those are rare — bordering on unique — qualities in Washington. From day one, Sen. Lee has led the fight against Obamacare, and there is no senator more committed to the Constitution than Mike Lee. Utah has done the nation a tremendous service by sending such a passionate warrior for liberty to the U.S. Senate.”
Shooting hostages • But some Republican colleagues believe this is an unwinnable fight and that Lee, Cruz and their supporters have made a huge strategic blunder.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., one of the nation’s most conservative senators, said shortly before the shutdown began that he expects the GOP to eventually “fold like hotcakes” after about a week.
“You do not take a hostage you are not going to for sure shoot,” he told a group of reporters. “And we will not for sure shoot this hostage.”
In a closed-door meeting, GOP senators lobbed heavy criticism at Cruz and Lee, which the Utah Republican described on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show as “an all-out attack” by so many senators that he lost count.
“It was unflattering. It was unfair. It was demeaning. It was demeaning to Senator Cruz and me,” he said. “But more than anything, it was demeaning to those who engaged in the attack.”
So far, about 20 House Republicans have announced their willingness to pass a bill reopening the government with no conditions, the position favored by President Barack Obama and the Democrats. None is from Utah.
Among that group is Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who has increasingly trained his fire on Cruz.
“I think Ted Cruz is a fraud; he’s the one who led this and Mike Lee was his accessory,” King told The Tribune. “I think both of them have done tremendous damage to the party, the Congress and the country.”
The White House has been adamant it won’t negotiate when it comes to implementing the health care law and that Obama won’t be “held hostage by these partisan ideological demands.”
Democratic National Committee Press Secretary Michael Czin said Lee doesn’t seem to fully understand the impacts to his own state from his efforts to kill Obamacare.
“The fact is people are hurting from this shutdown — in Utah and across the country — and Senator Lee would rather downplay the consequences of his shutdown than get the government back open,” Czin said. “There are the votes in the House and Senate to pass a clean continuing resolution to open the government, but Republicans like Senator Cruz, Speaker [John] Boehner and Senator Lee refuse to let that happen.”
Even in politically red Utah, a new poll reveals, most residents don’t like shutting down the government as a way to end Obamacare.
The KSL/Deseret News survey, conducted Thursday, shows 56 percent disapprove of that tactic, while 37 percent back it.
Utahns are more closely divided in placing blame for the government shutdown. Some 41 percent point to both parties, while 20 percent take aim at Republicans, and 21 percent says it’s the president’s fault, according to the survey. Only 6 percent blame Democrats in general.
Utahns are also mixed on Lee’s job performance. The KSL/Deseret News survey says 43 percent approve of the junior senator’s work while 35 percent disapprove. The poll carries a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.
Cruz, Lee fans • And yet, back home and across the country, a core group of conservatives is heralding Lee and the shutdown itself, hoping the self-made crisis will result in a more serious attempt to reduce federal spending and revamp a health law seen as an overreach.
Cruz and Lee have become the darlings of the conservative media sphere, with RedState’s Erick Erickson calling the two “commanders of the conservative army.”
In a column for Breitbart, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said Cruz and Lee are the “brave men who tried to do something.”
“Ted Cruz and Mike Lee fought to fulfill the campaign promises every Republican made,” Palin wrote, “and their actions have been revelatory for all of us.”
Much closer to home is Mapleton resident Bob Friel, a Republican who follows politics closely, and said he’s “loving” the shutdown.
“Thank heavens for Mike Lee is what I’m saying right now,” he said.
Friel appreciates that Lee, his favorite Utah politician, is unrelenting, believing that Republicans in general have been far too willing to negotiate and compromise with Obama.
“He is holding to principle and somebody’s got to do that,” he said. “There has been too much caving to political pressure.”
While the shutdown hasn’t hit Friel directly, it has impacted his family. His son Bret is an archaeologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon and has been furloughed.
But Bob Friel has little sympathy for a son who worries about missing a paycheck, believing that this is the time to take a stand.
“He is whining and moaning right now. I said, ‘Buck up, sonny, we have to fix the problem.’ ”