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Rolly: Utah's conservative legislators aren't happy with their Washington brethren

Published September 28, 2008 12:00 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Something extraordinary happened this past summer in Orem.

A group of Republican legislators refused campaign checks offered to them by a leader in their own party, and insisted on paying for their own breakfast.

The unusual move by a handful of Utah County lawmakers was in part a symbolic gesture to underscore their disappointment with the federal government in general and their own congressional delegation in particular. The broader context is that in some respects the Utah Republican Party is at war with itself, with a growing corps of conservative idealists creating political turbulence for Republican officeholders who until now seemed invincible.

In short, it's not the Democrats that Utah's Republican incumbents are worried about. It's the right flank of the GOP. Just ask six-term Republican Congressman Chris Cannon, who won't serve a seventh term after his embarrassing primary election loss to far-right firebrand Jason Chaffetz.

The next Republican heavy hitter up for a possible intra-party challenge is Sen. Bob Bennett, whose third term in Washington ends in two years. And July 1, 2008, was not a good day for Utah's junior U.S. senator.

Bennett was set for a cordial breakfast meeting at Mimi's Cafe in Orem with Utah County's four Republican state senators and 11 House members.

As he did with other counties' GOP legislators, Bennett offered to pick up the tab and brought with him campaign contributions for each of the party's legislators facing re-election. But the meeting with the Utah County group ended with some legislators walking out and leaving the campaign checks on the table. Some even refused to let Bennett buy them breakfast.

According to several attendees, their hackles were raised over two main issues - illegal immigration and the balanced budget amendment.

Bennett said immigration was not up for discussion. That irked Rep. Craig Frank, R-Pleasant Grove, who is upset with all of Utah's federal representatives except GOP Congressman Rob Bishop.

"They (the delegation) forget who they represent," said Frank. "They seem to create their own agendas when they get back there, and they are not necessarily in line with what we send them back there for. One reason I gave back the check is that I'm not sure our delegation has respect for those who serve in public office here in Utah."

Frank is no liberal wannabe. This was a conservative Republican whomping on another conservative Republican.

Bennett says he was misunderstood. He didn't remember the immigration question even coming up. But his staff reminded him that the question was asked when he was in the middle of answering a different question.

On the balanced budget, Bennett took personal blame for whatever upset he caused the legislators. He said that in explaining some of the problems with the balanced budget amendment, he tends to get "a little professorial."

Some of the legislators told me they didn't appreciate being "lectured to." Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, was not at the showdown at Mimi's Cafe. But he says the legislators who were there displayed the same frustrations he has expressed at the Legislature when Sens. Bennett, Orrin Hatch and other members of the delegation have made their obligatory appearances before the state Senate.

"It's disturbing to me that they (the congressional delegation) clearly reject their constitutional charge to represent state rights," Stephenson said. "Senator Bennett in particular is out of touch with the state of Utah and the burden state government bears."

In red-state Utah, those are fightin' words.