When you see a train wreck about to happen, you can't — at least I can't — just stand there and watch it without at least trying to do something to stop it. —Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah
SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee said he's concerned about Utahns affected by the government shutdown that began Tuesday as a result of the fight he's helping lead against President Barack Obama's new health care law, but he's not backing down.
"When you see a train wreck about to happen, you can't — at least I can't — just stand there and watch it without at least trying to do something to stop it," the Utah Republican said, vowing to continue blocking the new law known as Obamacare.
But Rep. Jim Matheson, Utah's only Democrat in Congress, said it's time to stop the day-old shutdown by passing a budget bill that contains money for the health care law that also took effect Tuesday.
"It's time for everyone in Washington to grow up and recognize it's important to keep the government running," Matheson said, calling Lee's latest plan to restore funding to only some parts of the government "an unrealistic strategy."
Matheson had joined the rest of Utah's congressional delegation in supporting budget bills in the GOP-controlled House that attempted to stop or stall the Democratic president's signature law.
While he said Congress should continue debating what to do about the health care law, "we shouldn't hold the entire federal government hostage and just shut it down," Matheson said, because the impact extends beyond the federal employees now on unpaid furloughs.
"This is going to be a drag on our economy day by day by day," he said. "This is serious stuff. And it's time for this political partisanship that's dominating this issue to be set aside. It's time for elected officials to do the right thing."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a statement that Utahns affected by the shutdown "have every right to be angry and frustrated with the situation," but he said the issues surrounding the health care law are also impacting residents.
Hatch did not address Lee's latest efforts.
"The fact is that we need to find a reasonable solution to get the government up and running again," he said. "And I'm working to find that resolution in the Senate."
Lee said his plan to end the shutdown by passing a series of what he called non-controversial funding bills aimed at re-opening specific agencies would prevent Congress from stalemates over "risky, all-or-nothing" proposals.
"The reason that there has been a lot of difficulty on this point is there are a lot of people who happen to agree with me, even in Washington," Lee said. "A lot of people happen to agree we ought not to fund Obamacare."
But former Utah congresswoman Enid Mickelsen, part of the GOP effort to enact the Contract With America reforms that led to government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 and the public turning against the Republicans, said history may well repeat itself.
"We were absolutely devoted to what we were doing. We believed that we were doing the right thing. We believed the government shutdown was worth it," Mickelsen said. "We were as idealistic as you come. But we learned through our experience."
The lesson? Even when you're fighting for a popular cause, public support can evaporate quickly when the impact of unpaid furloughs for federal workers and other impacts of a shutdown become clear, she said.
"The pressure of seeing people suffering becomes very intense unless you're absolutely cold-hearted and say, 'No, we're fighting for the greater good,'" Mickelsen, now Utah's GOP national committeewoman, said.
Then, she said, Republicans "marched off the cliff" because they believed they had a strong agenda with a real chance of succeeding. But the battle that led to the current shutdown was lost from the beginning, Mickelsen said.
"There was no hope of doing away with Obamacare, which I would love to do, but it was never going to succeed," she said. "This isn't about being conservative or not conservative. This is about whether people are willing to deal in the real world."
Mickelsen said her heart goes out to Utahns impacted by the shutdown.
"They're pretty disgusted by it, and they deserve to be. Those people are being held hostage right now," she said. "Here's one Republican who would say to them, 'I'm sorry.'"
Quin Monson, head of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said the political effect of the government shutdown on Lee will depend on whether he can claim he won the fight.
"It comes down to how he defines a victory," Monson said. "If the only way he can define a victory is to completely stop Obamacare, then that's going to be difficult. That ship has sailed in some ways."
Monson said it's too soon to assume Republicans will get all the blame for the shutdown, but the longer the federal government remains unfunded, the more difficult it will be to overlook the impacts.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said unlike most policy debates in Washington, D.C., the reality of a government shutdown hits home with voters.
Lee, "because he's been so outspoken in this, in some ways, he owns this," Burbank said of the effects of the shutdown. "I don't see how you turn it into a positive for yourself and your party."
Still, at least for now, many Utahns will side with Lee, Burbank said.
"I suspect people in Utah will probably be more sympathetic to the Republican position than the nation as a whole," he said. For them, Burbank said, the shutdown "needed to happen. It's unpleasant, yes, but we're going to get something important done."
Utah advertising executive Tom Love, a self-described moderate Democrat, said now that the state's residents are experiencing a government shutdown, Lee will have a tougher time if he seeks reelection in 2016.
His battles, Love said, "will happen with the Republican Party, with the moderates and the independents who are either embarrassed or ashamed or recognize the actual harm his performance in the Senate is causing."