SALT LAKE CITY — GOP Sen. Mike Lee took the oath of office Wednesday, as Republicans ushered in a new era of divided government.
The GOP now controls the House. Democrats control the Senate, but by a much narrower margin.
In Senate Chambers, Vice President Joe Biden presided over the swearing in of senators elected in November.
Lee stood next to Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy as he took the oath office. "Congratulations and welcome," Biden said to Lee and other new senators.
In a satellite interview from Washington, Lee said he plans to zero in on spending and backs GOP efforts to first try to repeal the new federal health care law.
"I think decisions like that are ill-suited for federal legislation," Lee said. "It's not the federal government's job to tell Americans where to go to the doctor and how to pay for it."
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who was sworn Wednesday with House Reps. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Jim Matheson, D-Utah, said Lee "doesn't mince words and I think he will surprise a lot of people and maybe raise a few eyebrows along the way. What he says I think will resonate with a lot of people beyond just Utah."
"I think there was a change of the guard in the election of 2010, and he comes out one of the most visible of that group," said pollster and longtime political observer Dan Jones.
Lee, who at 39-year-old is a youngest U.S. senator, fills the seat of Sen. Bob Bennett, who sought a fourth term when he was ousted in the state convention in May. Lee defeated Tim Bridgewater in the GOP primary and then Democrat Sam Granato in the general election.
With a new Senate in place, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he expects nominees to be named within the coming months for key vacancies.
Awaiting a permanent appointment in Utah is a U.S. Attorney and two seats on the federal bench.
The White House has yet to name permanent selections for those jobs and the backlog of cases is growing.
There are currently 94 vacancies on federal trial and appeals courts.
Those nominations, plus those for U.S. Attorneys, have become a political football, but Hatch said he thinks the logjam may open up soon.
At Utah's federal court house, two judges are on senior status, working with reduced caseloads.
The U.S. Attorney who served under the Bush administration, Brett Tolman, left a year ago.
Carlie Christensen has been serving in the positions since Tolman's departure.
"The White House has got to push this thing forward and put out a name for us," Chaffetz. "It's harming Utah and I don't see an explanation for why it's being slowed down."
A White House spokesman said there was nothing new to report.
"It means the White House has been slow in getting some nominations moved forward," Lee said. "I'm sure they'll be moving on those soon."
It typically relies on a state's senior senator for guidance.
Hatch said he knows what the holdup is but declined to say.
"But we'll just work on it and we'll get it solved," Hatch said. "Hopefully, in the near future."
U.S. Chief Justice John G. Roberts recently urged the U.S. Senate to stop holding up judicial confirmations for political reasons, citing overworked judges and mounting vacancies across the country.10 comments on this story
Jones said gridlock has stalled judicial picks on both sides for years, but now both sides may want to deal.
"It will always be you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours, Jones said. "Mr. Obama is going to have to have some Republican support to get anything done."
"I'm working on it and hopefully in the next few months we'll get some names up and we'll get those things moving," Hatch said.
Judicial appointments are lifetime appointments and are part of a president's legacy.