J. Scott Applewhite, AP
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee on Wednesday dismissed criticism of his strategy to defund the president's health care plan, including a new warning from Mitt Romney, as coming from "Washington and the politically powerful."
In a statement, Lee said Americans across the political spectrum are asking to be protected against the new law.
"This is not a left vs. right issue. It is Washington and the politically powerful vs. the people," the state's junior senator said.
Lee has had difficultly rounding up support for what he's called a "last shot" at stopping the new law by taking funding for it out of the annual appropriations bill that Congress must pass by Oct. 1 to keep the government running.
In a speech at a New Hampshire GOP fundraiser Tuesday, Romney joined other prominent Republicans in condemning the strategy as putting the GOP in the position of being seen as shutting down the government.
"I badly want Obamacare to go away, and stripping it of funds has appeal," said Romney, who lost his bid to unseat President Barack Obama last November. "But we need to exercise great care about any talk of shutting down government."
He asked what would happen "when soldiers aren't paid, when seniors fear for the Medicare and Social Security, and when the FBI is off-duty" if the fight over funding the health care law stalls passage of the appropriations bill.
"I'm afraid that in the final analysis, Obamacare would get its funding, our party would suffer in the elections, and the people of the nation would not be happy," Romney said, according to his prepared remarks.
Lee, who was attending a family reunion and not available for an interview Wednesday, said in his statement that "the government is going to be funded. The only question is whether it will be funded with or without Obamacare."
However, Lee has said his plan is to force Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to choose between shutting down the government or accepting a funding bill without money to implement and enforce the health care law.
A fundraising email from Lee that went out Tuesday did not mention a government shutdown. Instead, Lee said in the email he is being "personally attacked for wanting to defund this disaster," including by fellow Republicans.
A recent Utah Policy.com/KSL political insiders poll in the state found that 46 percent of Republicans thought Lee's efforts made him and his supporters look foolish, while another 6 percent said it damaged the GOP "by dividing lawmakers."
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the divide between Romney and Lee reflects the split within the GOP about the direction of the party after losing the White House in 2012.
"This sort of is a nice illustration of the public debate the Republicans are having," Burbank said. "My guess would be that Romney's position on this issue would be much more popular in the state of Utah."
Romney, the former leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, was strongly supported by Utahns as a favorite son candidate in his presidential races. Lee, Burbank said, has the backing of conservatives aligned with the tea party.
It's not clear how Lee will benefit from his push to defund Obamacare, Burbank said.
"The only thing it really helps to do, and I'm not sure he needs help to do this, is it shores up the view he's the most conservative guy we could possible have," the professor said. "It may be good for fundraising."
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