Sen. Mike Lee told the Utah Legislature on Tuesday he agreed with about "70 or 80 percent" of what a bipartisan group of congressmen were pitching as principles for comprehensive immigration reform, but it still wasn't enough for him to remain as part of the so-called Gang of Eight.
Instead, he said he believed a piecemeal approach to immigration reform was better, while focusing on securing the border, fixing the legal immigration system and developing a Social Security card that is less susceptible to fraud.
"Because there is so much room for agreement here, there is a lot we can do especially if we undertake some of this a step at a time," Lee said. "It's not always ideal to have to swallow the entire elephant as a whole. Sometimes it's better to take it a bite at a time."
Lee, who addressed the Utah House and Senate, said the United States had made it "difficult" for legal immigrants to come to America while making it "easy" for illegal immigrants to cross the border.
The Republican received two standing ovations in the House first at the beginning of his 20-minute talk and then at the end when he took several questions from lawmakers. He opened with passing out a copy of his 2012 annual report to lawmakers a move that was mocked by Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, with a tweet that showed a picture of the hefty tome and a caption that read, "Biggest Waste of Taxpayers Money?"
Lee railed against federal spending and peppered his speech with a desire to turn more power over to states by giving them authority to control certain species that are currently protected under the Endangered Species Act and persuading the federal government to turn over public lands to Utah.
"One of the reasons I decided to run for this office was to make you [the state] more powerful," Lee said.
As one of the original tea party leaders in the Senate, Lee has been a vocal critic of President Barack Obama and has disagreed with his fiscal plans as well as the Affordable Care Act. He has also been a reliable "no" vote on judicial appointments made by the president.
Lee said he agreed with part of the Simpson-Bowles budget proposed by former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton chief of staff Erskin Bowles to reduce the federal deficit. But he stopped short of calling for a cut in military spending and, instead, when pressed by House Minority Leader Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, said it needed to be "controlled."
"We can make our defense spending more effective and efficient," Lee said. "Any place where we're spending a lot of money defense certainly qualifies as one of those areas we need to keep a watchful eye."
He told senators he thought budget sequestration a series of dramatic and automatic budget cuts "is likely to take effect next week."
Lee also jokingly gave the state Senate a check for $5 billion, and said that is unfortunately how Washington works.
"We decide what feels like a good amount and just authorize it," he said.