Capitol Hill conservatives breathed a sigh of relief with the Sept. 16 announcement that Sen. Michael S. Lee (R.-Utah) will take over the helm of the Senate Steering Committee, the chamber’s conservative bloc in Congress’ next session.
“I am honored by the opportunity to chair the Senate Steering Committee,” said Lee.
“Senator Toomey has been a courageous and principled leader and I hope to maintain the standard he has set,” he said. “The Senate Steering Committee will continue to develop and promote conservative solutions and facilitate vigorous discussion and debate on the issues that matter most to the country. I look forward to leading this effort and very much appreciate the support of my colleagues.”
It was not a surprise elevation, Lee has served as the committee’s vice-chairman under Toomey. The announcement brings certainty to the Senators on the committee and the staffers.
The hope is that Lee will restore the Steering Committee to its prowess of previous sessions, when it was both a reliable and innovative force on the Senate floor and in the cloakrooms. The committee was founded in 1974 as a conservative redoubt in an era of liberal consensus among Republicans and Democrats.
Toomey said he was thrilled to have Lee take the baton.
“Mike Lee is a knowledgeable and principled movement conservative, and he has done a terrific job as vice chairman of the Steering Committee this Congress,” he said.
“I’m pleased to hand the gavel to him. I look forward to continuing to work with Mike, and my colleagues, to advance innovative conservative ideas that help create jobs and grow the economy,” he said.
Toomey, a conservative hero, who as a congressman and president of the Club for Growth championed economic conservatism, made a rash and self-lamented decision to support President Barack Obama’s program to restrict gun rights.
The rumor was that a member of Toomey’s staff showed the senator a poll showing the majority of Pennsylvania voters supported expanded background checks.
However it happened, Toomey, the economic conservative, ended up fronting a bill written by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D.-N.Y.) that would have expanded federal control of firearms and made simple transactions subject to government approval.
It was not the role Capitol Hill expected from the leader of the Senate’s conservative bloc. Not only was it bad politics to give the president and Democrats cover on gun rights—if his bill had passed and become law, it would have made the country a more dangerous place.
From there it was a game of catch-up for Toomey, who at times seemed like he no longer knew why he wanted so badly to be a senator.
Without the burden of leading the Senate Steering Committee, and up for reelection in 2016, Toomey now has a chance to Toomey has time to reconnect with his base and pursue his own legislative agenda.
His campaign website has 150 words about expanding background checks for gun transactions, but 1,000 words devoted to the federal budget and returning to a free market economy.
Lee, a two-time law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., is a senator who has never lost contact with his base.
The junior senator from Utah, is one-third of the conservative troika that has become the center of gravity for the Republicans in the Senate. The other two men are Sen. Randal H. “Rand” Paul (R.-Ky.) and R. Edward “Ted” Cruz (R.-Texas), and they are both in the running to be in the running for the White House.
Lee does not have the marquee status of a Paul or Cruz, but the liberal Republicans, led by W. Mitt Romney, certainly are aware of his influence and stature. That is way Romney is raising money to support a primary challenge to Lee in 2016.
What conservatives are looking for in Lee less accommodation and more resistance to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.). In his four years in the upper chamber, Lee has become adept at Senate rules and the privileges afforded each member. There will be more procedural votes, less cooperation with the GOP Senate leadership and greater clarity for the American people about who is really fighting for them.
One thing we will not see starting in January is the leader of conservative senators carrying water for the president or fronting bills written by Schumer.