Yesterday, ThinkProgress reported that Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) believes the GOP “jobs” plan is “constitutionally problematic” because it includes a bill that tells state courts how much they can award to medical malpractice plaintiffs. Lee’s claim that the bill is constitutional suspect is particularly significant because he promised last March to block any bill that he believes does not have “a clear and obvious basis connected to one of the enumerated powers” of the Constitution.
On Twitter, we asked Lee’s office if he would keep his promise to obstruct bills that he does not believe to be obviously constitutional now that keeping his word requires him to block a major Republican priority. Lee’s office refused to say that he would:
It’s not exactly clear what Lee’s office is saying here, but one thing is absolutely clear. Lee has abandoned his original promise to obstruct legislation he deems unconstitutional.
The origin of Lee’s promise is a March 2 letter where he and seven of his colleagues promised to “object to the consideration of any legislation” that fails to meet five criteria — one of which states that “all bills must have a clear and obvious basis connected to one of the enumerated powers” in the Constitution. Because there are only two ways to bring most legislation to the Senate floor, unanimous consent from all 100 senators or a 60-vote “cloture” motion breaking a filibuster, Lee’s promise not to consent to a vote on bills that are not obviously constitutional amounts to an effective promise to filibuster those bills.
Now, however, Lee is merely saying that he will “vote against” bills that he thinks violate the “original understanding of the Const[itution],” not that he will actively filibuster them. This is a much weaker pledge. It leaves Lee free to vote yes on the only vote that matters in today’s hyperobstructionist Senate — the vote to invoke cloture and allow the GOP’s bill to receive an up or down vote. Similarly, his new claim that he will vote no on bills that he can’t reconcile with the “original understanding” is weaker than his original pledge to not only block bills that he deems unconstitutional, but also to block bills whose constitutionality is not “obvious.”
Lee made a sweeping and unambiguous pledge when he signed his March 2 letter. Now that this promise hinders his ability to behave like a loyal partisan, however, he has suddenly decided that it no longer applies. Lee’s willingness to water down his own promises the minute they come into tension with the Republican agenda raises serious questions about whether anything he says can be trusted.