SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee acknowledged he may not end up with enough support to stop funding for the president's health care law, but said he has to try anyway.
"Sometimes in Washington, you have to stake out a position even when you're in the minority, even when you're a member of a minority within a minority," Lee told the Deseret News Friday.
So far, Lee has just a dozen senators on board with his proposal to take funding for the law widely known as Obamacare out of the annual funding bill that Congress must pass by Oct. 1 to keep the government running.
There had been 15 backers among the 100 members of the Senate, he said, but three Republicans, including Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, have taken their names off a letter detailing their demands.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has not endorsed the proposal, either, even though he "fully backs repealing Obamacare in its entirety," his spokeswoman, Heather Barney, said.
In the GOP-controlled House, Lee said about 66 representatives have signed on. A number of Republicans, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, have publicly criticized the effort.
Recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Lee in a PBS interview of "living in a dreamland" for trying to undo the health care law and said "even Republicans won't agree with what he's trying to do."
Lee said he is undeterred in his quest to stop a law he sees as unaffordable, unfair and increasingly unpopular.
"This is our last shot before it takes effect," Lee said. "I hope and expect more people will join the cause. If they do, that's fantastic. If they don't, it's still my opinion. I still believe in it."
Utah's junior senator insisted he was not threatening to shut down the government unless money needed to implement and enforce the new health care law, much of which takes effect next year, is removed from the funding bill.
"That's not my threat. That is not me. I don't want that. I don't need that. I want to avoid that. It is stunning to me that anybody would think of shutting down the government over this," he said. "I don't think it's going to happen."
A government shutdown could hurt the Republicans' chances of reclaiming the Senate and maintaining a majority in the House in the 2014 elections. It could also make Lee, who is expected to seek a second term in 2016, vulnerable.
Already, there is talk among Utah Republicans that Lee will face a challenger from his own party. Former state GOP Chairman Thomas Wright has said he'd consider running for the Senate as well as for governor.
Wright said Friday that "it's tough for elected officials to balance what they think with what their constituents think. It will be interesting to see how well voters believe Mike is doing in that regard."
Lee has been called an obstructionist by critics for his attempts to stop gun control, immigration and even student loan legislation from moving forward, at times using procedural manuevers.
He said his efforts were no different than what a doctor does to fight disease or what a law enforcement officer does to fight crime. Lee said he has to stand up to a Senate controlled by Democrats who are far to the left of he and most Utahns.
"So yes, I am frequently, I would say routinely, involved in efforts to stop what I would perceive as bad policy," Lee said. "This is no less important than those efforts to try to pass things."
Still, Lee said he is working with Democratic senators on bills dealing with the privacy issues raised by recent revelations about the National Security Agency surveillance program.
Although he has also been called an extremist, Lee said that's not fair. He said it's extreme that the government "is increasingly revealing that it has spied on us. It has lied to us. It has targeted us as Americans."
Lee is attracting national attention for his stands. On Sunday, he is scheduled to be a guest on FOX News Sunday to talk with host Chris Wallace about his proposal to stop funding the health care law.
"It's pretty clear he's interested in being a nationally visible leader of the conservative movement," said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Wilson said while Lee has yet to get as much attention as fellow GOP conservative senators Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, that could change if he makes headway against Obamacare.
Paul, Cruz and Rubio are all seen as contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Lee said he's happy in the Senate and has no other political ambitions.
Wilson said, however, it's going to be tough for Lee to be able to claim a victory in his fight against the health care law.
"In the end, from a practical, political standpoint, it probably goes nowhere," Wilson said. "It's a long shot bid to do something legislative at this point to undermine Obamacare. But a lot of times in politics, the symbol matters more."
University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle, an active Republican, said the GOP could end up energized by Lee's efforts no matter what ends up happening.34 comments on this story
He said Lee, who replaced veteran Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010, could gain influence in the Senate as part of a younger generation who see their role as stopping legislation they oppose, just as Lee is doing.
"That can make him a powerful player in the Senate," Hagle said.
Lee said he's not after a more prominent profile.
"I just care about this issue," he said. "The attention isn't about me. The attention is about the cause. It'd be a lot easier to just not express opinions....But I don't think that's what I was sent there to do."