SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, defended his role Wednesday in the increasingly bitter battle over President Barack Obama's health care law that is splitting the GOP and bringing him increased national attention.
"I respectfully but strongly disagree with some of my Republican colleagues," Lee said of criticism from Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and others in the GOP about the tea party-led fight seen as threatening to shut down the government.
Hatch told reporters that Republicans need to avoid "immolating ourselves in front of everybody" shortly before Lee and others joined Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on Tuesday in what amounted to an overnight filibuster on the Senate floor.
Lee, who'll be making his debut in the early presidential voting state of Iowa this November headlining a major conservative organization's fundraiser, said he's trying to protect Americans from the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
"What exactly about that is foolish, to say we need to tread carefully?" Lee asked of his call for stripping out funding for the health care law from the budget bill that must be passed by Oct. 1 to keep the government operating.
He said he does not believe that strategy will result in a government shutdown, despite the concerns raised by Hatch and others that Republicans will be blamed if a budget bill is not passed in time.
"I don't believe we will have a government shutdown. I never have. I have said from the beginning of this, we all know that government is going to be funded," Lee said. "The question is: Do we fund it with Obamacare or without?"
Although Cruz controlled the Senate floor for more than 20 hours, Lee pitched in multiple times with discussions that included recounting a childhood accident and a desire to be a pirate, The Associated Press reported.
Lee said he didn't feel overshadowed by Cruz, often mentioned as a contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
"We're friends, we're colleagues, we're allies," he said. "I view him as a teammate."
While Cruz has already been spending time in Iowa, traditionally the first state to vote in presidential races, Lee will make his first appearance there at the 13th annual Friends of the Family fundraiser for the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
Lee, first elected to the Senate in 2010, said he has "absolutely no plans" to run for president.
"It is not that," he said of his trip to Iowa. "I've been invited to speak at an event out there, and I'm honored to do so."
The coalition is one of Iowa's most prominent social conservative organizations. Faith and Freedom Coalition President Steve Scheffler said choosing Lee to speak at the fundraiser was a "no-brainer."
Scheffler, Iowa's GOP National Committeeman, said the group was looking for someone who hadn't been to Iowa already and who does not "wilt under political pressure and is willing to stand up" for constitutional principles.
He said it doesn't matter to the 1,000 or so guests who will pay $55 to attend the fundraiser whether Lee is interested in the presidency. But if Lee does decide he wants the job, Scheffler said he'd have a receptive audience.
Iowa's conservative voters, he said, are looking for "people like Mike Lee who are willing to stick their neck out" on the issues that are important to them, including the health care law. "He's just right on target on every single issue."
Craig Robinson, editor of The Iowa Republican and a former Iowa state GOP political director, said past speakers at Faith and Family Coalition events have included GOP presidential contenders Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.
"Anytime a U.S. senator or a governor or a high-profile Republican comes to Iowa, it definitely raises people's antennas and makes them go, 'Hmm.' It makes you think about that person running for president," Robinson said.
He said Lee is not that well-known in Iowa, aside from "the most active Republicans who live it and breathe it every day," but that's changing because of the health care funding fight.
"He's not necessarily the guy in the limelight, but he's part of that group that is making a lot of noise in Washington," Robinson said. "Coming to Iowa is only going to raise his national profile."
University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said not everyone in the political world who makes a pilgrimage to the state is eyeing a run for the White House.
Hagle said Lee would need to spend much more time in Iowa to be a contender, using repeated visits to become better acquainted with the state's voters and political leaders.
"Coming to this event is certainly a first step in that direction," Hagle said."Right now, I would just put this down as he was invited, so he'll come out and spread the word."
Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said Lee is heading to Iowa to "make sure people don't see this anti-Obamacare crusade as Ted Cruz's one-man show."
Wilson said the Texas freshman senator is more aggressive and from a much bigger state than Lee. Though Lee may not be interested in running for president, "he is interested in bolstering a national profile with conservative activists."
Even though Lee is not up for reelection until 2016, he is already raising money through emails that are highly critical of the Obama administration and especially the health care law.
Courting conservatives around the country "keeps your options open," Wilson said. But that may just mean finding more support for the causes Lee holds dear, he said.
"We shouldn't just cast this in terms of self-interest," Wilson said. "He really does believe in this."
Lee said he expects his speech in Iowa to draw more attention to what he's trying to do in Washington.
"Anytime one has an opportunity to focus on issues and do so in a forum where there are willing and interested listeners, that will certainly be the case," the senator said.
University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said there's also a focus on the widening split within the GOP after Mitt Romney's 2012 loss to Obama.
"The Republican Party is at war with itself, and people are choosing sides within the party," Scala said, coming to Iowa and New Hampshire, another early voting state, to stake out their positions.
Right now, Lee is playing "wing man" to Cruz, seen as a tea party contender for the White House along with Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, Scala said.
"That's how I see Lee now, as someone in a supporting role, not someone with serious presidential ambitions," he said. But should the political fortunes of the more prominent candidates falter, "that could highlight someone like Lee."
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