SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee labeled the Senate's decision to reject the effort by him and other conservatives to stop debate on gun control legislation even before it started a "procedural success."
"I don't view this as a failure," Lee, R-Utah, said after the Senate voted 68-31 to proceed with debate on the bill drafted in response to December's deadly school shooting in Connecticut. "We were still able to extend things two or three days longer."
Lee, along with fellow Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, backed the maneuver that forced supporters of the bill to come up with at least 60 votes to begin debating expanded background checks and other measures next week.
It was Lee who spoke on the Senate floor Thursday in favor of not taking up the bill.
Reading from a few of the more than 3,000 comments posted to his Senate website in support of the Second Amendment, Lee quoted an elderly woman from Virginia who purchased her first gun with her husband last year.
"Protecting our rights, the few the government has left us, is of utmost importance to us, and we'll do everything necessary to hold onto those rights, regardless of the source of the threats against them. God bless America," Lee said.
Standing in the Senate chamber during the vote were families of the victims of the Newtown, Conn., massacre that left 26 dead, including 20 first-graders. Supporters of the gun bill, including President Barack Obama, said the families deserve action on the bill.
Lee declined to say whether the gun rights advocates he quoted were as influential on the vote as the families.
"I don't want to compare those voices to those of the victims of the horrible tragedy in Newtown," he said. "There's not a member of this body, or of the House, not a single American I know of who wouldn't prefer to find a way to do away forever with this kind of tragedy."
But he said the gun control legislation, expected to feature a bipartisan compromise extending background checks to those who buy guns at shows or on the Internet, "ends up significantly restricting the rights of law-abiding citizens."
Utahns, though, overwhelmingly favor background checks for all gun buyers just as most Americans do, according to a poll taken in January for BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
The poll of residents across the state found that 82 percent support background checks.
"Utahns strongly favor that," said Quin Monson, the center's director.
Still, he said, Lee won't face political consequences in Utah for his opposition to the Senate bill "to the extent it's viewed more broadly as getting in the way of additional gun control."
Both Monson and Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said Lee and other opponents likely won't be able to stop the gun bill from passing in some form.
What the opponents will be able to do, Wilson said, is "win points with the NRA, which is an important interest group." Lee already has an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association, as do all of the other members of Utah's congressional delegation.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who voted with Lee to oppose proceeding with the gun bill, has an "A-plus" rating from the NRA. Hatch said in a statement he could not "in good conscience move forward on a proposal based on an outline and talking points."
Wilson said because there is virtually no constituency opposed to background checks, Thursday's vote was "all about interest-group politics."
Thomas Panuzio, a Salt Lake City-based homeland security consultant who founded SecuringOurSchools.org after Newtown, questioned Lee's efforts to stop debate from getting underway on the bill.
"For Mike Lee to try to stop an over-200-year-old institution from doing what our Founding Fathers wanted it to do, which is debate, is really beneath the office," Panuzio said.
"The majority of Americans want this debate, and the majority of Utahns want this debate," he said. "Who is he representing?"
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Lee is just keeping the promises he made when he unseated GOP Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010, to push for more openness in Washington and defend the U.S. Constitution.
"I don't think he deserves to be called an obstructionist for what he's done thus far. Thirty other senators agreed with him, and it really was a necessary step," Jowers said, to stop Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., from "ramrodding a bill through without debate."
Lee balked at the suggestion that some might see him as an obstructionist on the issue.
"Anytime someone opposes legislation, they are by definition trying to stop it," he said. "That doesn't warrant the use of a denigrating term, and I frankly resent the use of that term. What I am saying is I am for the rights of law-abiding American citizens."
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