Mike Lee looked every bit the sidekick to Ted Cruz during the Texas senator’s epic 21-hour filibuster last week — and, indeed, throughout the effort to strip funding from the president’s health-care bill. At 3:37 p.m. on Wednesday, an hour into Cruz’s marathon diatribe against Obamacare, Lee appeared on the Senate floor to lend a show of support to his colleague. “Will the gentleman yield for a question?” he asked, before delivering his own brief remarks in opposition to the law and retreating again to the wings.
Though Cruz has taken center stage throughout the defunding drama, it is the Utah senator who has for months been the quiet mastermind of the Republican effort to defund Obamacare. While Cruz railed on the Senate floor, Lee stayed in his Senate office overnight, the only senator besides Cruz to do so. When the weary Texan exited the Senate chamber on Thursday, it was Lee who carried their message onto Fox News and CNN.
Mike Lee is not trying to position himself in front of a camera. Unlike his high-profile tea-party colleagues Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio, Lee has no presidential ambitions. He looks unremarkable and talks unremarkably, eschewing the grandiose flourishes and flamboyant displays of his ideological allies and seeming content to let them take center stage. As a popular senator from Utah, a Republican state in little danger of turning purple, Lee is looking to hold down the Senate GOP’s right flank for the long term. “I’d like to see us moving more in a direction of being highly skeptical of any effort to expand the federal government’s role, any effort to expand the cost of government, any effort to increase taxes,” he told me last month in an interview in his Senate office. “I’d like to see us continue to move in a direction that’s more in favor of constitutionally limited government — perhaps more important, more devoted to federalism, regardless of what the courts will let us get away with.” One of his aides puts it more bluntly: “The minority of the minority” of the Senate GOP, he says, referring to the ascendant Tea Party Caucus, “is going to run things until our leadership gets some backbone.”
The wheels of the defunding effort began to turn shortly after the Obama administration announced, on July 2, that it would delay the law’s employer mandate. “The law as it was passed in 2010 is no longer the law as it sits on the books today,” Lee tells me. I ask if he’d hold the same position if the law had remained unchanged. “I don’t think that my position would necessarily be different,” he acknowledges — Lee was elected in 2010 in a wave of backlash against the law and considers uncompromising opposition to it a duty to his constituents — but the delay lent credibility to a cause he would have championed regardless. “The fact that the president himself has said, ‘This law is not ready to be implemented as written,’ gives us a lot more momentum and allows us to make a very serious case for defunding,” he says.
That is the case Lee made in early July, when he put in personal calls to influential talk-radio hosts Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and Laura Ingraham to ask for their support. His pitch to the would-be emissaries, according to a Lee aide, was, “This is our last, best chance to do something to protect the country from Obamacare before it is fully implemented.” He often asks, rhetorically, when an entitlement program has been rolled back after its implementation. Since then, the talk-radio giants have spread the gospel, though their vocal support has failed to elicit the broad-based popular uprising that Cruz and Lee had hoped for.
Shortly thereafter, on July 9, Lee threw down the gauntlet for his Senate colleagues in an interview with the Washington Examiner, telling the paper: “Our current [continuing resolution] expires at the end of September, and so every Republican is going to have a chance to weigh in on whether or not they’re okay with Obamacare — whether or not they’re willing to fund it. . . . Any Republican who agrees to fund Obamacare this time around is going to have a hard time explaining that to voters.”