Utah Sen. Mike Lee Pushes Small Government

NPR's Robert Siegel, reporting from Capitol Hill on the start of the 112th Congress, talks to one of the newest members of the Senate — Mike Lee. Lee is a 39-year old Republican from Utah and a fervent believer in a small government, which means repealing the health care legislation and pushing for a balanced budget amendment.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In the Senate, no one personifies the 2010 election results more so than the newly-elected freshman senator from Utah. Republican Mike Lee is 39. He is a tea party favorite. His issues are the tea party's issues: fix a government that's too big, that's spending too much and that's borrowing too much.

Senator MIKE LEE (Republican, Utah): We have now a situation in which our national debt will soon reach $15 trillion, and we have a national government that's telling people where to go to the doctor and how to pay for it. And they're starting to ask themselves the question: Is this really what it's supposed to be doing?

SIEGEL: Mike Lee defeated a three-term GOP incumbent at the Utah Republican Convention and then he won the state in a walk. He is a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, and he takes a narrow view of what the federal government should do. But Mike Lee insists he doesn't hope to turn the clock back to 1787 or 1937 or even 1967.

Sen. LEE: Perhaps 2007. I don't know where the right line is. We have to start with the government that we actually have rather than the one that we perhaps wish we had. So we can't go back and reinvent things, all the way back to square one.

SIEGEL: The Congress and the administration have an appointment with the debt sometime in this year, in the spring, when it'll come to you and your colleagues to either raise the debt limit or not. We've heard Austan Goolsbee, the president's economic advisor, characterize a vote to not lift the debt ceiling as a terribly dangerous thing to do, a message to the country's creditors that we might not be paying our debts. Do you regard that vote as a no result as essentially being impossible for that reason?

Sen. LEE: Well, as I recall, a few years ago, President Obama, who was then a U.S. senator, voted against raising the national debt ceiling, saying that it would be irresponsible. And now all of the sudden you've got his office, now that he's president, taking a very different approach.

I don't think we have to assume that it's catastrophic if we don't approve an effort to raise the debt ceiling. I think what would be catastrophic would be to continue to spend money that we don't have.

And my inclination is to vote against any effort to do that, barring some serious commitment involving a serious compromise that would result in a serious effort to balance the budget.

SIEGEL: You say serious compromise. You would expect the administration to come to you not with what you might want in the way of budget-cutting but something that met you somewhere in between what you want and what they want?

Sen. LEE: Before I would even consider doing it, I'd want a bipartisan commitment that would say, you know, if we're going to vote to extend this, we are going this year to enact a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

SIEGEL: That would be a condition for extending the debt?

Sen. LEE: That or something very similar to it.

SIEGEL: Senator Lee, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Sen. LEE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Republican Senator Mike Lee was sworn in today. He's a freshman senator from Utah.

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