In an age of voter disgust at Congress’s inability to get anything done, Senator Rand Paul is finding success through obstruction.
Paul, a Kentucky Republican, is developing a following that rivals the one devoted to his father, presidential candidate and Texas Representative Ron Paul. The younger Paul has done it, in part, by repeatedly insisting that Senate leaders schedule votes on amendments he’s pursuing on issues such as abortion or gun rights -- or he’ll delay major, bipartisan legislation.
This week, as the Senate convened to pass a backlog of bills before the Fourth of July holiday, Paul demanded a guaranteed vote first on defining life as starting at conception, as part of a bill renewing national flood insurance. Majority Leader Harry Reid postponed the debate rather than yield to what he called in a June 26 floor speech a “ridiculous” request.
Paul has used similar tactics to try to cut aid to Egypt and Pakistan, bolster gun rights, reduce union membership among Washington residents and highlight privacy concerns connected with proposed changes to a U.S.-Switzerland tax treaty.
Congress had an approval rating that averaged 14 percent in Gallup polls over the first six months of this year, hovering near record lows. For individual lawmakers, there’s much to be gained at the expense of institutional efficiency.
With his stands, the Kentucky lawmaker is raising his profile among his state’s residents and voters nationally who savor Paul’s confrontations with a government they see as too big and unresponsive, said Gregg Keller, national executive director of the American Conservative Union.
“He has established himself in a very short time as one of the very important voices of American conservatism,” Keller said. “He’s absolutely right on principle and he’s speaking a language our people understand.”
The Washington-based group gave Paul a 100 percent approval rating and had him as a featured speaker at its Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month in Chicago.
Last year, Paul helped create the Senate Tea Party Caucus, a wing of the limited-government political movement that helped Paul beat Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who was backed by the Republican establishment, in the 2010 primary.
Paul’s tactics sometimes have generated consternation even among fellow Republicans.
Senator Lindsey Graham fought Paul when the Kentucky lawmaker attempted to block an Iran sanctions bill. Paul should realize the amendment strategy sometimes can backfire, Graham said.
“He will use tactics available to every senator to be able to be heard,” said Graham, a South Carolina Republican. “He can expect that other people who disagree with him will use tactics to run him over.”
In the flood insurance fight, Paul refused to agree to a motion to begin debate on the bill before the full Senate until his amendment was considered. Without the consent of all senators, Reid faced the possibility of having to spend a week on the floor garnering support for debate on the legislation to begin.
The Paul amendment states that the U.S. Constitution grants a right to life for human beings, which are defined as “each and every member of the species homo sapiens at all stages of life, including, but not limited to, the moment of fertilization,” or cloning or any other start in the process of creating a human.
The amendment is a “serious” attempt to get the Senate to vote on a top concern of many Americans, said Moira Bagley, a Paul spokeswoman.
“It is an important issue that deserves the time of the Senate to debate,” she said. Also, “the amount of Senate time taken to address this would be minimal.”
Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who backs the amendment’s anti-abortion sentiment and praises Paul, in general, for doing a “good job,” said he would have proceeded differently.
“I wouldn’t have done it that way, and there’s no one who’s more pro-life than I am,” he said. “It’s a different style, I’d guess you’d say.”
Paul is using options available to all senators and isn’t causing any hardship to coastal homeowners because the current flood insurance program doesn’t expire until the end of next month, Senator Richard Burr said.
“This is the way Democrats and Republicans have been historically acting,” said Burr, a North Carolina Republican. “I want to preserve that right” for a single senator to object to legislation.
Paul’s effort to provoke a confrontation fizzled as House and Senate negotiators yesterday worked to finalize an agreement to combine the flood insurance bill with highway and student-loan legislation.
He employs similar tactics in the committees he serves on.
At the request of Washington city officials, Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who heads the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, on June 26 pulled consideration of a bill to avoid votes on several Paul amendments. The measure in limbo would give the Washington city government more say in how it spends money.
The Paul amendments would let Washington residents obtain concealed weapon permits for handguns; honor such permits from other states; codify a ban on city-funded abortions; and prohibit workers from joining a labor union as a precondition for employment.
Several of Paul’s amendments are focused on foreign affairs.
He successfully got a provision attached to the Iranian sanctions bill that said the measure couldn’t be interpreted as an authorization to use force.
At Graham’s insistence, though, President Barack Obama’s vow that he would “take no options off the table” to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon also was added.
If he fails to get a vote, Paul doesn’t give up. Before he was unsuccessful in attaching sanctions against Pakistan to the farm bill, the senator already was looking ahead to make it part of a foreign operations spending measure.
“We’re going to fight wherever we can put it on,” he said on June 13. “We also may try to bring it up individually as a bill.”
Paul’s proposal would cut off aid to Pakistan as a way to pressure that government to release a doctor who provided U.S. officials with intelligence that may have helped them locate Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader who was killed in a May 2011 raid by American special forces.
The doctor, Shakil Afridi, has been sentenced to 33 years in prison in Pakistan for ties to a now-defunct militant group, which Afridi has denied.
An amendment sponsored by Paul to cut off aid to Egypt failed in April to become part of a bill to overhaul the U.S. Postal Service. The Paul provision would block $2 billion in aid until Egypt stops attempting to prosecute pro-democracy workers who had been detained there earlier this year.
Privacy concerns spurred Paul to refuse to consent to floor debate on an amendment to a U.S.-Swiss treaty, slowing Switzerland’s handover of data on thousands of Americans with bank accounts hidden from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.
Graham said it might be productive to work together more with Paul, particularly on their shared goal of reining in domestic spending.
“He’ll take on anything” such as Social Security, Medicare and other entitlements, Graham said. “He knows no fear. I like that.”