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Paul Trying the Senate’s Patience

In single-handedly blocking reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act, Sen. Rand Paul has finally done what many expected when the Kentucky Republican arrived in Congress earlier this year — he’s holding the Senate hostage.

And many of his colleagues aren’t happy about it.

Senate Republicans are publicly sympathetic with Paul’s decision to use parliamentary levers to stretch debate on the bipartisan anti-terrorism legislation beyond its expiration tonight, saying they appreciate the principled stance he has taken and the substantive case he often makes to defend his positions.

But privately, Republicans complain that Paul’s style has worn thin. On the PATRIOT Act, the freshman Senator has little support in either party.

Republicans indicated Wednesday that their Kentucky colleague’s near-isolation on the homeland security issue is emblematic of Paul’s typical failure to cultivate the support of his Conference and his penchant for trying to hog the spotlight.

“They’d come to his defense more vocally if he picked his spots more judiciously than demanding to be front and center in every debate,” said a Republican aide, who was careful to say that people understand that Paul is not just “grandstanding.”

In an interview Wednesday, Paul was unapologetic about his opposition to reauthorizing the PATRIOT Act in its current form as well as his vocal opposition to the House Republican budget authored by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) and his party’s messaging strategy.

Paul, who has complained that Ryan’s budget still adds too much to the deficit, said House GOP leaders erred in their public relations strategy by not involving conservative groups from the beginning to combat a predictable Democratic attack on the budget’s controversial Medicare provisions. Paul’s competing budget plan was overwhelmingly rejected in a Wednesday evening floor vote.

Paul’s refusal to bend on the PATRIOT Act had threatened to force a vote at 1 a.m. today, a move that was unlikely to endear the Senator to his colleagues. However, Senate leaders announced Wednesday night that the vote would be held at
10 a.m. today instead.

Paul, who blamed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for the impasse, acknowledged that he did not alert his Republican colleagues or GOP leaders in advance about his plans to slow down passage of the PATRIOT Act. But he said that they shouldn’t be surprised.

“I think they knew about this when I ran in the Republican primary back in 2009-2010,” said Paul, a libertarian thinker with tea party roots. “I try to work with people. Sen. Reid promised me a week’s debate and amendments. I’m not up here just to be an obstructionist. But I think agreements should be kept. They seem to pride themselves on gentleman’s agreements up here. This is a clear breach of an agreement.”

The disagreement between Reid and Paul exploded on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon. The Majority Leader accused Paul of blatantly misrepresenting their deal, saying the Kentucky Republican had been offered a deal to vote on his amendments, just not every one of them. Paul charged Reid with shirking a public agreement to allow votes on his amendments in order to protect Democrats from a gun-records-related proposal.

Reid’s decision to short-circuit Paul and force an earlier vote on the measure prevented other Senators, including a handful of Democrats, from getting votes on their amendments as well. The legislation enjoys strong bipartisan support, clearing an initial procedural vote 74-8.

“The junior Senator from Kentucky is complaining he has not been able to offer amendments. Let me take a moment to set the record straight. … I worked long and in good faith to get an agreement to consider amendments,” Reid said during a back-and-forth with Paul on the floor. “In order to continue his political grandstanding, he rejected that offer.”

Senate Republicans laid the blame for the imbroglio over the PATRIOT Act with Reid.

Sen. Mike Johanns, a PATRIOT Act supporter, said Paul’s tactics are justified. “He was promised that he would have an opportunity to bring up his amendments,” the Nebraska Republican said. “This really is not Rand’s fault. Give him a few amendments and we could vote on this in the next hour and wrap this up.”

But Republicans’ defense of Paul’s parliamentary rights doesn’t change the fact that the Senator’s lone-wolf style can be grating in a chamber that operates on consensus.

One Republican Senator said the Conference agrees that Paul’s position has merit. But the majority of Republicans, this Senator said, disagrees with the way Paul has gone about making his point and believes the Kentuckian could be more effective if he worked more closely with other GOP Members.

This Republican Senator also confirmed a growing opinion of Paul as someone who would find more cooperation and attention from colleagues if he stopped trying to be at the center of so many issues.

Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune said that while his Conference is sympathetic to Reid’s treatment of Paul, most GOP Members believe reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act takes precedence given its importance in preventing terrorist attacks. The South Dakota lawmaker suggested Paul might have been better served to use other, less crucial legislation to make his point.

“I think you have to pick and choose your times,” Thune said. “He’s chosen this time — and again, he feels slighted because of commitments that were made to him about being able to offer amendments. So, I would totally get that. But at the same time, I think that there may be a better time to have that discussion. Right now we know there are the votes to pass this.”

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