Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee: GOP squabbles help the party
Agenda • Utah senator insists that the battle of ideas is healthy and helpful.
Published: October 30, 2013 07:51AM
Updated: February 14, 2014 11:36PM
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Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah

Washington • The rift within the Republican Party pitting tea party conservatives against the establishment is not a problem to solve, rather it should be encouraged, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Tuesday.

Without this battle of ideas, contends Lee, the GOP will not craft a new agenda and is likely to lose to Democrats in future elections.

“It’s time for another great debate and we should welcome all input. Grass roots and establishment. Conservative and moderate. Libertarians and traditionalists,” Lee said in a speech Tuesday at the Heritage Foundation. “There are still three years left before Republicans will have a chance to select a new, unifying conservative leader. But together we can start debating and developing a unifying conservative agenda right now.”

Lee, known as a tea party crusader, delivered his third speech advocating a new vision for the future, where Republicans focus on policies that help strengthen families and their communities, impacting everything from housing to health care to prison reform.

In his address, titled “What’s next for conservatives,” the Utah senator suggested the current ideological struggle within the party is similar to what took place in the late 1970s after Ronald Reagan lost his first battle for the GOP nomination but before he became a Republican legend.

He said the ideas that “propelled the Reagan Revolution did not come down from a mountain etched in stone tablets. They were forged in an open, roiling, diverse debate about how conservatives could truly meet the challenges of that day.”

While some of the political issues have changed, Lee argued it’s still incumbent on the party’s conservative wing to forge a new path to electoral victory, one that focuses on a positive vision of the future, while not tearing down the rest of the party.

And he suggested that this kind of debate hasn’t happened since Reagan’s first election.

“The party establishment clings to its 1970s era agenda like a security blanket,” he said. “The result is that to many Americans today, especially to the underprivileged and middle class, or those who have not come of age or immigrated to this country since Reagan left office, the Republican Party may not seem to have much of a relevant reform message at all.”

His remarks come shortly after Lee’s plan to fight the Affordable Care Act split the party and was instrumental in leading to the first government shutdown in 17 years. Lee blames Republican leaders for not unifying around his strategy of rejecting any budget that funded the health law, which those leaders said couldn’t work with Democrats controlling the Senate and the White House.

“Especially in the wake of recent controversies, many conservatives are more frustrated with the establishment than ever before. And we have every reason to be,” he said. “But however justified, frustration is not a platform. Anger is not an agenda.”

And he rebuffed criticism that he has hurt the conservative effort by staking out different policy paths than some of his more senior colleagues.

“Too many in Washington seem to believe that on any issue, Republicans should either have one plan — one that everyone supports in lockstep — or no plans,” Lee said in the Heritage speech. “But unity cannot come at the expense of creativity.”

He said a new GOP platform must respond to poverty, stagnant wages for the middle class and the privileges the elite receive from government. Lee also offered four concrete legislative ideas:

Family tax plan • Lee would create a new, additional $2,500 per-child tax credit that could be used to offset parents’ tax bill. He argues the credit would compensate parents for the high costs of rearing children, who would benefit the country when they enter the workforce.

Flex time • The senator is introducing a bill to allow private-sector employers to offer flex time instead of overtime to employees who prefer it, a benefit that public-sector employers can already offer. He suggests parents may want to work a few extra hours some days to take time off on another day to be with their children.

Road funding • Lee is pushing a plan to move most of the gas-tax revenue from the federal government to the states, allowing state leaders to determine whether they should put that money into revamped highways or public transit.

College accreditation • The senator wants to allow states to offer alternative accreditation programs that could allow for federal aid to go to new types of higher learning. As a suggestion, he noted that Apple could offer its own computer science program.

mcanham@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mattcanham