Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, one of the first and most prominent representatives of the Tea Party rebellion against the Republican Establishment, is now seeking to become a member of the often-maligned Senate leadership by running to chair the Republican Senate Policy Committee.
In his first interview following news that he's seeking the fourth-highest position in the U.S. Senate, Lee told the Washington Examiner that his decision to seek the leadership post came quite naturally for him.
"I saw a seat opening up and I'm interested in policy and naturally I'm interested in anything to promote an active, lively discussion among members of the Senate Republican conference," Lee said Tuesday morning.
Lee, like his frequent ally Sen. Ted Cruz, has had a number of well-publicized clashes with Republican leadership since being elected in 2010. But Lee has also done more to thread the needle, including accepting a quasi-leadership position last year as a counselor to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Over the last several years, Lee has also put together a conservative reform agenda aimed at updating limited government ideas to make them more appealing to lower and middle-income Americans.
The senator acknowledges that, "the definition of what constitutes the Establishment and who is a part of it is a fluid thing and it's full of subjectivity and by some definitions I'm a member of the Establishment by virtue of having been here for five and a half years and by virtue of the fact that I'm seeking another term."
However, by chairing the Senate Policy Committee, a position currently held by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wy., Lee says he'd be able to have the best of both worlds. He'd be in a better position to influence the policy debate, but unlike other leadership positions (such as, say, the majority whip), Lee wouldn't feel obligated to vote along with leadership.
"That's one of the things that draws me too it," Lee said of the policy post. "This position involves promoting an active, robust, lively discussion among Republican senators about policy issues. It involves preparing white papers, providing members with research, so you can discuss these issues in an open forum and you can help members make decisions that benefit them and their constituents."
He added, "I'm not aware of anything in the job description that says I would have to outsource to anybody else what I regard as the most fundamental prerogative, duty, and responsibility that any Senator has, which is to decide how to vote, how to call the balls and strikes when it comes to specific votes on pieces of legislation."
Lee identified spending and regulatory reform — broadly speaking — as the most important policy issues facing the nation.
"We've got a national debt approaching $20 trillion and we've got a federal regulatory system that's costing the American economy roughly $2 trillion a year on top of the roughly $3 trillion tax burden the federal government puts on the economy," he said. "Those are problems need to be dealt with."
Entitlement reform would have to be part of any discussion about spending, Lee said.
Lee's push for a more serious focus by conservatives on policy that solves the nation's challenges by running the government in closer accordance with constitutional principles comes at a time when Donald Trump's success in the primary has threatened to redefine the Republican Party.
Trump hasn't focused his campaign on rolling out policy proposals, and he has also made a number of statements that go against Republican orthodoxy, particularly when it comes to the role of government. Does his success make Lee, who has endorsed Cruz, worry that there's a large segment of the Republican electorate that doesn't place much emphasis on constitutional conservatism?
"There's plenty to worry about if you look at it that way," Lee said, after also noting that Trump has yet to carry a majority in any state. "But I think that puts a spotlight on the need to have policy proposals to address concerns that people have, including and especially the voters who have been supporting Donald Trump. I think the solution to that to those who share that concern is to have more conservative proposals, more proposals for reform that involve constitutionally limited government, that involve economic and social conservatism. If we can offer up proposals that address the concerns that are driving people in that direction I think we'd be better off for it."
He continued, "A lot of people feel left out by a government that taxes too much and regulates them too heavily and seems to result in a set of circumstances where economic and political incumbents benefit at everybody else's expense. You have six of the ten wealthiest counties in America surround Washington, D.C., and the poor and middle class are getting squeezed while people at the top and people with influence in government seem always to be doing better."
Lee suggested that the Article I Project he supports, aimed at reasserting congressional authority over the executive branch, would be one way to appeal to these voters.
"One of the many causes of this problem where people have felt disenfranchised and appropriately so is to reconnect government with those who are actually elected to make law instead of allowing Congress to continue outsourcing the task of legislating, resulting in these rapidly mounting costs," he said.
Among the tangible reforms Lee has supported is the REINS Act, which would require any executive regulation with an economic impact of $100 million or more to face a vote in Congress.
"We've got tax and regulatory policies in this country that are driving a lot of businesses overseas and so I think there's a lot that we can do using principles of constitutionally limited government to help address people who share these concerns," Lee said.
His efforts on the Senate side to rally Republicans around a conservative agenda complement what Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is attempting on the House side. In fact, when Ryan made his first major speech as speaker — a talk at the Library of Congress centered around the need for GOP policy solutions — he asked Lee to give opening remarks.
"He and I talk a lot about these issues," Lee said. "We share a lot of common goals in connection with that. We very much speak the same language especially when we talk about the need for reforms that are aimed at helping the poor and middle class and channeling the conservative message in a way that makes clear we're not the party of the top one percent, we're the party of free markets and institutions of civil society that have done more to lift poor people out of poverty, and to build the middle class, than any government program ever could."
With the presidential election looming, Lee said he believed that Cruz could win a general election, despite what the skeptics say.
"Let's assume Cruz is the nominee this November, that would provide a clear contrast, whether he's running against Hillary Clinton or against Bernie Sanders," Lee said. "It will be a very clear decision for the American people to make. Do we want more Obamacare? Do we want more of the same regulatory mission creep that has helped to harm America's poor and middle class? Do we want more of the policies that have stifled growth? Or do we want something else, something different, something that focuses on the need to reevaluate the size, the scope, the cost, the reach, of the federal government? I think Ted Cruz will help sharpen that contrast."
The rising prospect of the eventual Republican nominee being chosen at a contested convention has also triggered questions about whether the party will have difficulty uniting in the fall.
"The best historical analogue I can think of is probably the 1976 convention," Lee said, arguing, "It took two or three weeks, and then the party got behind Ford."
But Gerald Ford lost.
"He lost, yes, but I don't think that post-convention, going into November, the problem was necessarily failure on the part of the party to unify behind Ford," Lee said. "There were other factors that led to Carter's victory. And I think in this circumstance the party would heal, it would move forward."