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Mike Lee blazes new kind of tea party influence

1st-term senator became key voice in debt debate

SALT LAKE CITY — Shortly after arriving in Washington after his election, Sen. Mike Lee placed a call to Chris Chocola, an influential former Congressman.

Lee told Chocola, the president of the conservative advocacy group Club for Growth, that he wanted to pass a Constitutional balanced budget amendment he had started drafting before even taking office, and asked for his support. To Chocola, the exchange showed how serious Lee was about keeping the promises he'd made during his campaign.

Fast-forward six months. For a freshman senator from a relatively small state, Lee played a surprisingly large role in shaping the recent discussion about raising the nation's debt limit. On July 7, with less than a month to go before the Aug. 2 debt-ceiling deadline and no firm proposals on file in Congress, Lee introduced the Cut, Cap and Balance Act of 2011, which required a balanced budget amendment. About two weeks later, Lee's new book, "The Freedom Agenda: Why a Balanced Budget Amendment Is Necessary to Restore Constitutional Government," went on sale.

"We've found ourselves in a strange moment in time with this big debt ceiling debate consuming everything," said Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. "And without question Mike Lee was a key voice in that debate."

After only seven months in office, it's too early to tell what kind of impact Lee will have during his six-year term as a Senator. But Lee's role in the recently concluded debt-limit debate and his willingness to endorse up-and-coming Republican Congressional candidates suggest that the junior senator from Utah is making good on his campaign promise to infuse tea-party principles into the national political debate.

"Six or seven months ago, there was serious talk in Washington of another stimulus package of more new spending," Lee said. "Now, we're talking about cutting trillions of dollars from the federal budget over the next few years, and we're actually talking seriously about a balanced budget amendment."

After Lee narrowly emerged victorious in June 2010 from a tooth-and-nail Republican primary with Tim Bridgewater, a chorus of dissident voices started haranguing Lee for being too ideological to effectively function in the Senate. Chief among these was Jim Bennett, a lifelong Republican and the son of outgoing Sen. Bob Bennett, who crossed party lines and became a paid staffer for Sam Granato, Lee's Democrat opponent in the general election.

"If (Lee) is elected, he will either be ineffective as a senator, or he will disappoint many of the followers who helped elect him," Jim Bennett said in the weeks leading up to the general election.

Undeterred by the naysayers, Lee started drafting a balanced budget amendment before even taking office. The call to Chocola soon followed. Lee quickly established himself as a rising star, regularly appearing on cable news shows, and before long under-the-radar Congressional candidates started reaching out to him for his support. To date, Lee has met with 10 candidates who seek his endorsement for the 2012 election.

"Mike Lee is a credible tea party Constitutional conservative, so whoever he supports, people will see that and see a credible candidate," said Brendan Steinhauser, the director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks. "There are a few senators, if they endorse someone, that I take note of, that we consider, that we say they're probably a good guy. One of those is Mike Lee, and the other is probably Jim DeMint. Mike Lee's (endorsement) is a good signal to us that he's probably vetted this candidate, and that candidate is probably rock-solid on their issues."

So far Lee has endorsed two Republicans running for open Senate seats: former Texas solicitor general Ted Cruz, and Rep. Jeff Flake, a BYU alum representing Arizona in the House. Because of the cachet Lee's name carries in tea party circles, deciding to issue those endorsements is no small gesture.

"I think it's understandable why I would be interested in finding other candidates out there who share the political views that I do," Lee said. "It's a good thing to have colleagues, including present and future colleagues, who share the same viewpoint. …

"The candidates and I talk a lot about not only what their platform is and what they'd like to accomplish, but also about why their views are the way they are and why they believe or profess to believe the way they do. When you get into the details of not just 'what' but 'why,' it helps you understand the way someone thinks and that is very helpful when you're trying to discern what someone's intentions are and what kind of a colleague they might be."

Although Lee's call for a balanced budget amendment ultimately fell short, he finds solace in knowing he affected the public debate and helped set the stage for the important legislative battles to come.

"Overall this has been encouraging," Lee said. "It has given me hope and encouragement that the political process works, that when voters speak it has an impact. That message (from voters) last year has caused us to change course — perhaps not as much or as quickly as some of us would prefer, but it definitely has changed our course."


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