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Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Mike Lee

SALT LAKE CITY β€” Even though the ceremonial swearing-in of Mike Lee to the U.S. Senate is scheduled for next Wednesday, the U.S. Constitution specifies that the mantle of being Utah's junior senator will pass from Bob Bennett to Lee when the clock strikes 10 a.m. MST on Monday.

At that precise moment, Lee will enter the fray of national politics with myriad factors working in his favor β€” he's so well-connected, for instance, that U.S. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, two of his friends, will be present for his swearing in.

Not everything will be the ideal for Lee, though. For example, he will join the Senate with only partial staffing and no permanent office β€” a pair of issues that won't be resolved for several months to come, and which are in fact quite common for a freshman senator.

Building a staff

During fiscal year 2009, Utah's Sens. Bennett and Orrin Hatch each spent an average of $2.39 million on staffing. Because a senator's staffing stipend increases with his service time, Lee will have less to spend. Regardless, Team Lee will still have a pretty chunk of change to spread out over 35-40 staffers.

"It's been an absolutely fascinating experience building a staff from the very beginning, from the ground up," said Spencer Stokes, Lee's chief of staff. "Probably the biggest part of the challenge is there are a lot of qualified and great people who have sent in resumes. From that standpoint, it's been a challenge trying to narrow down and figure out which people would be the best fit for the office."

The heart of Lee's supporting cast is already in place: In addition to the former lobbyist Stokes, he has named his general counsel, David Barlow, his legislative director, Ryan McCoy, state director Dan Hauser and scheduler Ellen James. McCoy and Hauser previously served as Lee's campaign manager and deputy campaign manager, respectively.

The full staff can't be finalized until after Congress convenes and Lee receives his committee assignments. That's because several positions will require staffers with expertise specific to certain committees. Stokes has more than 500 resumes on file; he wants people who share Lee's ideology and expects the hiring process won't end until sometime between March and June.

"It makes for an interesting challenge," Stokes said. "We're blending campaign people with experienced people in Washington, people (whose) senators may or may not have been re-elected or who have worked on (Capitol) Hill."

Lessons learned

After the 2008 election, Rep. Jason Chaffetz built his own congressional staff from scratch. Granted, within Utah's congressional delegation, a House member's staff and budget are roughly one-third of a senator's β€” Chaffetz, for example, employs 12 full-time staffers and spent $862,117 on staffing during fiscal year 2010. Nevertheless, the lessons learned two years ago by Chaffetz are worth noting as representations of the challenges Stokes faces in building Lee's team.

"It's challenging," said Jennifer Scott, Chaffetz's current district director and former campaign manager. "You've got all these great people who worked on the campaign, and there just aren't enough positions for all the great people you have. For me, the big challenge was saying no to people who really deserved a job. They had really done a lot for us."

The biggest issue that blind-sided Scott was actually technical in nature.

"Setting up a brand-new office is a lot of work," she said. "When you're working for the federal government, there are serious firewalls and (virtual private network) connections. Just getting all of that electronic stuff set up is really quite a job. Setting up a new office is no small thing. We had hoped to be able to get (an office) set up in West Jordan within 90 days; it was May before we actually had the grand opening."

Office space

Lee's game plan for an office presence in the Beehive State is straightforward and simple: move into the offices recently vacated by Bennett in Ogden, Provo and St. George. Stokes eventually wants to relocate the Ogden and Provo offices to be nearer the borders separating Davis-Weber counties and Salt Lake-Utah counties, respectively. But in the immediate future, Lee staffers won't have to endure the technology-induced headaches Scott experienced while configuring Chaffetz's West Jordan office.

Back east in Washington, D.C., Team Lee is currently confined to a one-room transition office. Beginning Jan. 1, though, they'll move to a more palatable "swing office" on the eighth floor of the Hart Building where they'll stay until the end of March. In the interim, Lee will watch from the sidelines as the rest of the Senate scrambles for the most desirable office locations.

The protocol for filling the empty offices of departing senators such as Bennett is nothing if not time consuming. After a list is compiled of all the vacant offices, the sitting senator with the most seniority is allowed eight hours to decide whether to switch office spaces. Once every sitting senator has had his or her eight hours, each freshman senator receives 48 hours to choose from what offices remain. Unfortunately for Lee, the incoming senators are ranked in seniority according to criteria that pegs him last or next-to-last.

"We have to wait for everybody else to make their decision," Stokes said. "By the time they get through all of that, we're either 99 or 100 in seniority, so our office assignment will be whatever's left."

e-mail: jaskar@desnews.com