The last time many Americans saw Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah, he was trying to kill Obamacare. First, he was Ted Cruz’s lieutenant during the Texas senator’s 20-hour filibuster. Then, a few days later, the duo’s offensive to defund the health-care reform law led to a 16-day partial government shutdown that had even some Republicans fuming at him.
So, perhaps it is no surprise that Tuesday night Senator Lee will give the tea party response to President Obama’s State of the Union address. Yet on this biggest stage of the senator’s career so far, Lee might just take some Americans by surprise.
He is a Republican comfortable discussing ways to help America’s poor. He is a conservative’s conservative – winning perfect scores from the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and Heritage Action. But he is not afraid to work with Senate Democrats on bipartisan legislation. And he’s a tea partyer who wants to rebuild the Republican Party, not antagonize it.
In some ways, Lee is not your typical tea partyer, and Tuesday night, he’ll have an opportunity to show the nation a more nuanced portrait of a movement that many Americans believe is only about filibusters and debt-limit fireworks. (His talk will be livestreamed on TeaPartyExpress.org after the official GOP response, at 10 p.m. EDT, to Mr. Obama's speech.)
“The tea partyers have become far less sympathetic to the American people over the last several years because of things like the shutdown,” says Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. Lee’s “potentially more productive and compassionate approach to tea party principles is absolutely vital if that movement wants to continue with any force in the future.”
Lee is a natural to rebut Mr. Obama Tuesday because he has spoken passionately about America’s “crisis” of opportunity and upward mobility – issues Obama’s is expected to focus on during his State of the Union message.
While Democrats talk more about “the human-nature side and pull on the heart strings,” Republicans tend to focus on facts and figures, says Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the Tea Party Express, who asked Lee to speak Tuesday night.
But Lee humanizes, too, she says. He turns an issue like transportation funding into one about commute time and work-life balance, for example. “That’s how you reach people,” she says.
In the fight against poverty, Lee holds up Utah as a model. In an Oct. 29 speech at the Heritage Foundation, he praised his state's limited government and its private-sector welfare system of church-run charities, businesses, community groups, and volunteers. Salt Lake City, he said, is the most upwardly mobile city in the country.
In recent months, he has also introduced legislation aimed at helping upward mobility: tax reform that creates two tax brackets (15 percent and 35 percent) and a $2,500 per-child tax credit; education reform that allows students taking online courses and other nontraditional training to be eligible for federal loans, and flex-time for private-sector workers.
Lee has a “solutions” approach to problems, Ms. Kremer says.
Yet it was also Lee’s stance during the government shutdown faceoff that won him Kremer’s speaking gig. And that was classic tea party.
Many Republicans criticized Lee and Senator Cruz in the aftermath of the government shutdown, which saw the party take a beating in the polls. Lee’s poll numbers also fell in Utah, but he has no regrets over his stand. Obamacare, in his view, is unconstitutional and costs too much – two red lines he won’t cross.
The senator’s conservative roots go back to his childhood as the son of Rex Lee, the US solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan. As a youth growing up in Washington, Lee attended most of his father’s arguments before the Supreme Court. Due process and executive plenary power were kitchen-table subjects. As an adult, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
“His guiding star is the Constitution,” says close friend Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society. Even Lee, he says, jovially "recognizes that he's a bit of an intellectual geek."
In politics, Lee translated constitutionalism into a philosophy of limited federal government and fiscal restraint, toppling longtime Republican Sen. Bob Bennett at a Utah Republican Party convention in 2010, and riding the tea party wave into Congress. Soon after his arrival in the Senate, Lee cofounded the Tea Party Caucus, introduced a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution (which failed), and threatened to filibuster if the federal debt ceiling were raised.
A year later, the Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call, named him the “new Jim DeMint” after the ultraconservative South Carolina Republican senator who has since moved on to lead the Heritage Foundation. The former senator was famous for backing underdog, like-minded conservatives, and it was Lee’s initial backing of Cruz that opened the floodgates to support in 2012.
But if Cruz and Lee share the same philosophy, Lee’s tone is decidedly softer, his focus less self-centered. Cruz “is bigger than life and we all love him,” says Kremer. Lee is “very humble.”
While Cruz appears to flirt with the idea of running for president, Lee talks of the broader dream of rekindling the vigorous policy debates of the 1970s that produced a conservative agenda and a leader of it, Ronald Reagan.
But he warns against simply mimicking policies from a bygone era.
"As the decades pass and a new generation of Americans faces a new generation of problems, the party establishment clings to its 1970s agenda like a security blanket," he said in his speech at the Heritage Foundation. "The result is that to many Americans today, especially to the underprivileged and middle class, or those who have come of age or immigrated since Reagan left office, the Republican Party may not seem to have much of a relevant reform message at all."
A contemporary conservative agenda must be forged, he said. "The gaping hole in the middle of the Republican Party today – the one that separates the grass roots from establishment leaders – is precisely the size and shape of a new, unifying conservative reform agenda."
There is some evidence that colleagues are coming around, as Republicans such as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia discuss ways to address poverty. And Lee is not ruffling feathers among "establishment" Republicans the way he used to.
“Certainly, there was some initial reluctance on the part of Republican colleagues to embrace him, because basically, he took the place of Bob Bennett, a much respected senator,” says Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “But,” he adds, “I think he’s overcome this.”
Lee has the ability to work with those outside the narrow circle of the tea party – including Democrats. Last week, US Attorney General Eric Holder urged Congress to pass a bill on prison sentencing reform co-sponsored by Lee and Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, among others. The bill would reduce the mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes and give judges more leeway in deciding penalties, helping to reduce the federal prison population. Lee’s interest stems from his time as an assistant US attorney, when he saw the effects of mandatory sentencing on communities and families.
Lee has also worked with Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York on visa reform, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont on changes to patent law, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California on indefinite detention.
“We had three bills we sponsored with Chuck Schumer in the last Congress, and people freaked out,” says Brian Phillips, Lee’s spokesman. “We got calls from conservatives and libertarians around the country” concerned that Lee was “going Washington.”
The senator’s attitude is: “ ‘If it makes it more possible that we get this stuff done, then I’ll work with anybody,’ ” he says.