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."
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