Rep. Chris Lee, R-N.Y., removed his shirt, bent his left arm to form a 90-degree angle, flexed his abdominal muscles and held up his right hand to snap a cell-phone photo of his own reflection in a mirror.
This week, more than four months after Lee's impromptu Jan. 14 photo shoot, the consequences of his actions vaporized a 40-day Congressional stagnancy on passing a federal budget for fiscal year 2012, an issue which highlights a fundamental rift among Utah's Congressional delegation.
Back in January, Lee shot his own picture so he could send it to a woman looking to enter into a romantic relationship who had placed a personal ad on Craigslist. One problem: Lee is married. Within days of the media discovering Lee's transgression, he resigned his seat representing New York's 26th District in the House of Representatives.
Roughly three months later, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., introduced a budget on April 11 to set federal spending for fiscal year 2012 and appropriate budgetary levels for 2013-21.
Ryan's plan, dubbed "the Path to Prosperity," provides a framework for trimming the federal deficit without raising taxes. A significant portion of the proposed spending cuts would come from overhauling Medicare from a government-run program without hard spending caps into a system where senior citizens receive a predetermined lump sum to spend on premiums for their choice of health-insurance plans.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, applauds the way Ryan's proposed budget directly addresses a politically volatile issue such as Medicare.
"Paul Ryan is definitely a rising star," Mike Lee said this week during a conference call with Utah media. "He has taken some bold and relatively unprecedented action in proposing a budget-reform package that attempts to do that which a lot of others have feared to do in the past. It takes a stab at something that needs to be done. … Medicare in its current form cannot continue in perpetuity. The Medicare trustees themselves acknowledge that it's going bankrupt.
"The question isn't whether we have to reform it — it's how we're going to reform it, and how long we're going to wait before we start that painful but necessary process."
On April 15 Ryan's bill passed the House, 235-193. Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, voted for Ryan's bill, while Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, voted against it. In a strikingly partisan vote, only four Republicans and nary a Democrat broke ranks with their party's platform.
Then for more than five weeks, the House-approved "Paul Ryan budget" sat in the queue of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Reid never liked Ryan's budget, in large part because of how it seeks to change Medicare. But, uncertain about how giving the thumbs-down to a cost-cutting measure could play out during tough economic times, Reid held off on bringing Ryan's budget to a vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Reid's holding pattern abruptly ended this week. On Tuesday, Democrat Kathy Hochul defeated Republican Jane Corwin in a special election for New York's 26th Congressional District — the Chris Lee seat. Hochul scored a come-from-behind victory after making the preservation of Medicare a primary campaign issue. Fresh on the heels of the NY-26 election stemming from Chris Lee's Craigslist fiasco, Reid quickly maneuvered to call Ryan's budget to a Senate vote on Wednesday.
Mike Lee and Sen. Orrin Hatch both voted in favor of Ryan's budget. The bill, though, was defeated in the Senate, 57-40.
The same day that the vote took place, Hatch launched scathing missiles from the Senate floor at Democrats for their use of what he termed "Medi-Scare tactics."
"To recap for those who missed it," Hatch said, "Democrats took to the Senate floor and accused Republicans, who are attempting to right our fiscal ship by reforming programs for the poor and elderly, of seeking to harm women, children, and other vulnerable members of our society. This verbal assault was deliberate and premeditated.
"I actually thank my colleagues on the other side who declined to participate in those attacks. Those attacks might make for good politics. But they are terrible for this country."
Lee and Hatch joined 21 of their GOP senate colleagues in signing a letter, dated Wednesday and released to the media Thursday, addressed to Pres. Barack Obama that expresses grave concerns about the ongoing budget imbroglio. The letter also includes the veiled threat that failure to reach an accord on the federal budget could also result in an impasse on the Obama-backed efforts to raise the federal debt ceiling in advance of an Aug. 2 deadline imposed by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
"The budget process for America is clearly broken," the letter reads. "And now the debt-ceiling limit has been reached. Recently, your Administration has been warning the public of the dangers of not raising the debt ceiling. … We believe it is irresponsible to ignore the broken political system and the very real possibility that the debt ceiling might not be raised in time."
The letter echoed remarks Sen. Lee made just the day before during his weekly press teleconference.
"Particularly as this (budget) issue presents itself at about the time when we're confronting the expiration of our borrowing authority," Lee said, "the debt-limit issue is going to make for some very interesting discussions over the next couple of months."
Matheson, the only member of Utah's five-person Congressional delegation to vote against Ryan's budget, declined to be interviewed for this story regarding his vote against the bill. Matheson is essentially enmeshed in a Catch-22: committed to his party's platform against the Ryan budget — something not a single Democrat in all of Congress voted for — he clearly has no desire to speak out against budget cuts while serving constituents in a fiscally conservative Beehive State.
As a member of the House Budget Committee, Chaffetz will be part of the select group of legislators pressing forward to find a budgetary solution both houses of Congress can agree on.
"I wish it wasn't the case, but the Senate vote was anticipated," Chaffetz said Friday. "The budget that we had passed will still serve as a Republican framework moving forward. I think the public will ultimately cheer the idea that we're tackling entitlement reform."
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