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Sen. Mike Lee's bold, outspoken conservatism isn't sitting well with many of his more senior Republican colleagues in a chamber where even the staunchest of rivals tend to refer to each other as "my good friend."
The freshman Utah Republican's willingness to offer opinionated advice on policy and political strategy during closed-door Conference meetings has irked Members accustomed to Senate tradition, which values the input of tenured Members and expects the newly elected to maintain a deferential profile. Lee ousted Sen. Bob Bennett last year in a GOP primary, a factor that might have contributed to the tension.
"He's not shy about sharing his thoughts. And in general, this is a place where the more you run your mouth, the more you irritate people," a senior Republican Senate aide said. "He tends to talk very loudly and very authoritatively, not in a conversational way that invites discussion."
Lee, in an interview with Roll Call, said he's found the Senate to be collegial and declined to criticize fellow Republicans or the GOP leadership team over policy differences even as he displayed some of the confidence that has piqued some of the senior Conference members, including some in leadership. And the freshman Senator isn't without his fans — on Capitol Hill and on K Street.
"One of the roles each Member of the caucus has, particularly a freshman Member, is to communicate things that we've newly discovered on the campaign trail," Lee said Thursday. "We're newly elected so sometimes we can share insights that we picked up. As freshmen, we had to spend a lot of time out on the campaign trail because we weren't constantly flying back and forth to Washington to cast votes."
Lee said he feels the "particularly big crop of freshman Republicans" are more willing to express what they hear outside Washington. And he insisted that expression is done "with respect to our more senior colleagues."
But Lee's critics describe the Senator as too influenced by conservative activist groups and as being more intent on attacking the shortcomings of Republicans than Democrats.
One Republican source who is familiar with the criticism that has been circulating about Lee described the Senator as "the new Jim DeMint." The South Carolina Senator has taken heat from some Republicans over the years for his willingness to publicly criticize his GOP colleagues and oppose the National Republican Senatorial Committee in primaries. Those unhappy with Lee say it is mainly due to his style and actions in the Capitol.
Lee, 40, was elected last year as part of a generally more conservative class of Republican freshmen who won their seats on the strength of tea party support.